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Bird enthusiasts flock to Saline to see a tropical tourist

The roseate shoebill perched on top of a branch
Mike Perini

Observers have been flocking to Saline since last Wednesday to get a glimpse of a roseate spoonbill, a bird more typically found along the Gulf Coast region and in South America. It is the first recorded sighting of the species in Michigan, according to The Associated Press. The light-pink bird caused such a commotion that local law enforcement was required to direct the overflow of traffic.

While this is the first time a roseate spoonbill has been spotted in Michigan, it’s actually not unusual for this species to venture north. Roseate spoonbills have paid visits to neighboring states dating back hundreds of years. New York had a sightingjust a few weeks ago. 

“We were overdue for this sighting, for this bird to be here, basically,” said Pamela Rasmussen, assistant professor in the Department of Integrative Biology at Michigan State University. Rasmussen is also an assistant curator of mammalogy & ornithology at the MSU Museum.

Rasmussen told Stateside the dense woods and freshwater lakes of Michigan are a dramatic change of scenery for the roseate spoonbill. 

“It's got a wide range from the Gulf Coast of the US. It's really common in Florida, for example. And you can see them in Louisiana or the Gulf Coast of Texas. And you can see them in various wetlands in Mexico through Argentina.”

So, what is it doing in Michigan? Well, Rasmussen said, no one really knows. 

“But there is a pattern of young roseate spoonbills—and this is a young bird—there's a pattern of them just traveling, you know, in their first summer. So, they head north, and only a few of them do. But still, it's enough to make this pattern because they're really obvious, so you can't mistake them for anything else.”

While the bird’s visit in Saline was a delight to many, it appears to be more of a vacation than a long-term stay. Rasmussen considers the possibility of roseate spoonbills settling down in Michigan highly unlikely.

A group of birdwatchers eyeing the roseate spoonbiil
Credit Mike Perini
A flock of birdwatchers eyeing the roseate spoonbill.

“I don't think it could survive, and I don't think it will try, because the records that I've seen are all from the summer for the northern states, anyway. So, they just don't do this in the winter. For one thing, there's no open water, but also, I don't think that they're cold tolerant."

Perhaps, even the bird itself is unsure what it’s doing here in Michigan. Rasmussen speculated that the bird could have either an adventurous gene in its body that causes it to explore, or there was a malfunction in the bird’s internal navigation system. 

“Birds that migrate have complex navigational systems that have multiple components, depending on the species. But this is a day-flying migrant species. And so, they probably don't use the stars like some songbirds do. But anyway, something went wrong, maybe just its perception of the magnetic field that allows it to distinguish north from south, et cetera.”

You might be wondering if the bird's trip north has anything to do with global warming. Rasmussen said that's not likely a factor here. And, she said she isn't worried about a mass migration of the species for a long time. 

“I will say, unless global warming really kicks into a much greater extent in Michigan than it already has, we're not going to have spoonbills breeding in Michigan. And no, it's not going to have a measurable negative impact on our native species—not like mute swans, for example, which do tolerate the cold and do have an adverse impact. So, I think that's extremely unlikely.”

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Lucas Polack.

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