Written by Autumn N. Bryan
Raucous, bustling colonies of Roseate Spoonbills once flourished along the Florida coast and throughout its wetlands. Now, the painted, powder-pink birds are struggling inland, driven from their once robust ecosystem by the effects of climate change and man-made “restoration” efforts. More than a million wading birds once lived in the Everglades, however, plume hunters and the destruction of their diverse habitats have radically diminished their numbers. Over the last 20 years, since their initial recovery in the 1970s, the spoonbills have abandoned their longtime nesting grounds in the South. In the Florida Bay alone, their numbers have depleted from around 400 active nests in 2012 to 157 this past season – a fact diligently recorded by Jerry Lorenz, director of Audubon’s Florida Everglades Science Center. Sea levels are rising, becoming too deep for the spoonbills and driving the pink-feathered fowls out. To the North, where warmer winters and saltier soils have prompted the growth of mangroves, Roseate Spoonbills now nest. Just as the visceral effects caused by climate change have destroyed local habitats, they have also made the more northern, previously hostile environments thus more inhabitable for spoonbills.
This shift extends far beyond Florida and its colorful flocks. The birds have been spotted as far north as Quebec. As some animals are driven out, others arrive, escaping the destruction of their homes and ecosystems by way of migration. As exciting as this prospect can seem – a rapidly adapting habitat – it is equally alarming to ecologists. In barely two decades, the delicate ecosystem of the Florida Everglades has drastically changed. The effects of climate change and the northward shift of the spoonbills portends a coming transformation, one we may not be able to keep up with. Eventually, the spoonbills will not be able to migrate further north, and humans, with them, will be forced to face the crushing effects of climate change. Just as the spoonbills have adapted to such change, so too must ecologists and activists.
The Roseate Spoonbill teaches us about the overwhelming consequences of climate change, the need for ecological conservation, and the adaptability – the need for hope and creativity and perseverance – in the face of ongoing environmental crises. According to the 2022 U.S. State of the Birds Report, more than half of North American bird species are in decline. Florida is no exception; the state has been witness to more than just the ecological destruction of wildlife and its consequential devastation to the animals that call this diverse ecosystem home. Many indigenous local tribes have been displaced due to political and environmental violences, including human inference and the incurrence of climate change. Flourishing among the coastal mangroves of the Florida Gulf Coast, the Calusa tribe lived in harmony with the Everglades wildlife.The Calusa Indians fished for food along the coast, bays, and rivers. They made fish-bone arrowheads for hunting and built their homes on stilts. The Calusa are considered to be the first “shell collectors,” using the husks as tools, jewelry, and ornaments for shrines. Today, some shell mounds leftover by the Calusa still stand and are protected by environmentalists and conservation groups. The land there is alive, is a living history. The Indigenous people of the Everglades understood this and worked with what the land provided.
During the Spanish invasion of Florida in the 1600s the Calusa were decimated. By the 1760’s the Calusa had been wiped out almost entirely, despite a long and powerful reign. Today, approximately 4,400 Native Americans – the Seminole and the Miccosukee tribes – live within the wetlands, though their lives have been irrevocably changed. They still live in balance there with the wildlife, adapting to the seasonal shifts of the Everglades, the ever-changing water levels and the wildlife populations. But Frank, a Miccosukee man, in an article about indigenous tribes in the Florida Everglades, admits, “Our way of life is gone… We lived our way in the Everglades, the happy way, the good way. When I was young, you could drink the water. You could hunt and fish, and that was your lifetime” (Gillis). Now, the infrastructure of their lives has been decisively changed. Frank’s ancestors are buried in the Everglades. Their remains supply the nutrients and foundation on which local trees and plants grow – trees and plants that are harvested for food, tools, medicine, and other supplies used by the Miccosukee people. This communal way of life, working in cooperation with the land, is a testament to our ability to coexist harmoniously.
As climate change threatens the future of the Everglades, and the Miccosukee way of life, their adaptability and resilience may hold the keys to survival. The indigenous people of the Everglades have forged a sense of identity and community amid the changes wrought by climate change and colonialism. Today, members of the Miccosukee tribe (approximately 550 individuals) work toward environmental conservation and education, sharing their centuries-old traditions and practices with curious visitors. They have three reservation areas in the state of Florida: Tamiami Trail, Alligator Alley, and Krome Avenue. Their dedication to the Florida Everglades is evident in their commitment to the land and their attempts to carry on with the traditional Miccosukee way of life. They still work to evade settlement pressure and defend their right to the land. This indigenous diaspora, and the diaspora of the Roseate Spoonbill, reminds us that despite their determination, we owe more to the lives of those who originally inhabited the plains and wetlands of The Sunshine State.
The Everglades, described as a sopping prairie wetland, a 3-million-acre swamp, or the widest, slowest-moving river in the world, is home to over 800 species, including 30 threatened or endangered species and several endemic animals not found anywhere else in the world. Nearly 100 miles long and 60 miles wide, the Everglades trickles downhill, moving, at a barely perceptible slope, fresh water and nutrients toward the sea. This “river of grass” supported indigenous peoples for over 5,000 years. The Everglades is a unique ecosystem home to a rich cultural history. The spectacular diversity of the swamp is complemented by the diverse lifestyles and cultures of the people there. The ways of life that have evolved in the Everglades are as fragile as the threatened ecosystem. The Calusa and Seminole tribes were all but exterminated by diseases introduced from European arrivals and war campaigns pursued by then President Andrew Jackson. Though they never surrendered, U.S. military seized their lands in the mid-1800s. Thus began a grueling process of reengineering the Everglades for recreational use that resulted in ecological catastrophe still evident today. Just as foreign invaders attempted to steal the Everglades from its original inhabitants, the land and its wildlife fought back; the swamp was all but uninhabitable to the newcomers, too wet to build cities and farms, too hostile to encourage community building. As settlers attempted to drain the wetlands disastrous flooding occurred. From the 1960s to the 1980s over 1,000 miles of artificial canals were constructed by authorities. This means humans now determine the hydrology and health of this ancient ecosystem.
Human decision making is too often flawed, and the fate of such wild, self-sustaining ecosystems should not be determined by the egocentric demands of man. Already, the decimation of indigenous tribes throughout the years has exemplified the agonizing ramifications of human intervention. Algae blooms and fish die-offs followed the reconstructions in the 1990s as fresh water led to too-high salinity levels in areas such as the Florida Bay, once-home to those raucous and bustling colonies of spoonbills. This doomed the birds. A study done by Heather Rafferty, in partnership with Audubon Everglades Science Center, indicated that, due to the inundation of sea-level rising, 80-90% of the land in the Florida Bay historically used for foraging no longer supports the nesting of spoonbills. The Anthropocene shows no mercy, not even in the face of a sprawling swamp, ready to swallow man whole. The spoonbills have learned to adapt, however, and now thrive in more northern states where their presence has not been previously recorded. So, what can we learn from these migrating couplings of feathers, these pink, roseate spoonbilled birds?
Spoonbills are sensitive ecological indicators. All we need to do is watch and listen. Only when conditions are just right, the water not too-deep and not too-salty, does nesting boom. The fantastic distinction of the spoonbill – its pinkish hue – is due to a diet of crustacean that imparts a dose of carotenoid to the feathers. The migration of the Roseate Spoonbill highlights (in bright, loud, bubble-gum pink) the adverse conditions of the Florida Everglades, its lack of viable nutrients, the shift in fauna, and its ever-changing fate. Ecologists studying wildlife in the Florida Everglades have learned to listen. The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan legally requires South Florida’s water managers to consult ecologists before releasing fresh water into the Everglades, ensuring that the fate of the ecological community is being considered when making such drastic adjustments to the Federally protected National Park. Nature is incredibly resilient and with the right conditions life flourishes. The spoonbills have certainly learned to adapt. The ecological boom that followed such changes as The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan – centering science in decision making, has confirmed the necessity of science-based environmental conservation.
So why exactly are the spoonbills fleeing their once beloved colonies? Lorenz theorizes that because of the rising sea levels the Florida Bay and its surrounding areas are no longer fresh or shallow enough to support spoonbills. Roseate Spoonbills are highly sensitive to changes in their ecological atmosphere. Their northern shift indicates a rising sea and a fish-sparse wetland. The loss of their rose from the coastline of my homeland is an omen: a great wave of change is on its way, is already threatening the shore. The migration of Roseate Spoonbills is only one reflection of climate change. I have come to realize: though there are creatures still thriving among the proproots of this swamp, we are wanting and adapting and fighting extinction amid these wetlands every day. The ocean is winning. Saltwater is intruding into South Florida in part because of the destruction of the Everglades’ historically freshwater flow. The modifications made by humans in hopes of altering the natural surge have left a vacuum for the ocean to fill. The original foraging grounds are too deep, the mudflats are too dry, and the salinity of once-freshwater fields is high, too-high in salt. Where once we heard the songs of familiar birds there is silence.
A silent wetland is an ominous one. Previously filled with the sound of honking spoonbill hatchlings, the quiet of the swamp feels like a death-sentence. These birds, which once spoke to a flourishing ecosystem, no longer tell us about freshwater flows and restoration; their absence sends an urgent message about global climate change. It is not yet known if this drastic northern shift will be a successful adaptation to climate change or an ecological dead-end, failing to support the population of spoonbills longterm. Many bird species undertake long exploratory flights, but roseate spoonbills, in the past, have always raised their young within miles of their own hatchings. Many species are responding to the warming climate and the spoonbills are not moving alone. Woody storks and ibises, sea turtles, manatees, coastal fish, and alligators are all shifting north. Ecologists expect similar shifts across the globe and though many species are learning to adapt, this shift could be catastrophic for supporting species. This means a massive overall ecological deviation. It is intimating to say we just don’t know what the future holds. How will other species adapt? Not only to the warming climate, but also to the more southern species now occupying their homes – Where will they find refuge?
Temperatures are not the only thing on the rise. Extreme weather events occur more and more frequently and are historically devastating. Florida especially is susceptible to powerful hurricanes. These storms can tear down homes and rip protective mangroves from the peat, jeopardizing our fragile ecosystems and millions of people. Faced with the harrowing reality of climate change, ecological managers have set a new goal for restoration: a resilient Everglades that can survive stressors and bounce back to provide necessary habitat to hundreds of species. Long-planned restoration projects are finally bearing fruit, increasing the flow of fresh water into the Florida Bay, slowing the infiltration of South Florida by the sea, and replacing destroyed areas with rivers and floodplains. These benefits go beyond protecting habitat. Healthy wetlands provide mangrove forests that buffer hurricanes and prevent flooding. Aquifers tapped for drinking water are slower to fill with salinity, ensuring fresh water is available, and sustained livelihood, for all of us.
The land adapts and we must with it. The world and the refugees themselves are changing. However, not all species may find refuge nearby. This makes preserving current safe havens critical to preventing wildlife extinctions. Supporting the conservation of necessary ecological estuaries is mutually beneficial for all, ensuring a future in which we can all enjoy the roses. The spoonbills have abandoned their colonies for more lustrous and fresh-water-fish enriched wetlands, but their battle continues. They are only the pinkest of climate change indicators, adapting to the warming temperatures and the unstable land. In the growing swelter of climate change, the Roseate Spoonbill has adapted marvelously, expanding its range, and providing a pretty pink lining to the otherwise dark cloud known as the Anthropocene. But as environmental injustices proceed, and ecological destruction continues, we must be willing to listen to the voices that know best: those indigenous to the land.
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