The black-faced spoonbill is a victim of urbanisation

·5-min read

Despite being densely-populated, Hong Kong is rich in natural resources, a place where more than 60,000 migratory birds take refuge from winter each year.

Among them, the most famous is none other than the black-faced spoonbill. With its long and spatulate beak and unique face, the black-faced spoonbill makes for an iconic sight in Mai Po Nature Reserve.

This elegant wetland dancer is now classified as endangered worldwide, and deserves our care and protection.

Black faced spoonbills are water birds with flattened, spatulate bills.They wade in water and sweep their beaks from side-to-side to detect prey.20% of this endangered bird can be found wintering in Hong Kong
While the black-faced spoonbill population has reached a record peak, the actual number in Hong Kong has plummeted.

Facts about the black-faced spoonbill

The black-faced spoonbill is only seen in East and Southeast Asia, with its wintering grounds including mainland China, Macao, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam and Thailand.

Taiwan became the world's largest wintering ground for the species in 2020, with 60 per cent of black-faced spoonbills spending winter there.

According to the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society, the total black-faced spoonbill population in the 2020 census reached a peak of 4,864 birds, an increase of 9 per cent compared to the year before.

However, the number in Hong Kong plummeted, with only 361 birds spotted around Deep Bay (covering Hong Kong and Shenzhen), a decrease of 22 per cent compared to the 462 birds in 2010, which translates to an average annual decrease of 1.4 per cent.

It is a sign of the deteriorating Deep Bay wetlands environment, a warning of challenges concerning the conservation of black-faced spoonbills in Hong Kong.

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Fun black-faced spoonbill facts

"Black-faced Dancer":

Why does the black-faced spoonbill have such unique nicknames? In Chinese, it is called a "pipa water bird" as its beak is similar to pipa, a Chinese musical instrument.

It has also earned the names "black-faced angel" and "black-faced dancer" because of its distinctive black face and elegant figure.

Courtship tactic:

The black-faced spoonbill has its own method when it comes to expressing its feelings to a partner.

During the mating season, males will make their feathers fluffy and call out in low sounds to attract females.

Once together, the couple will preen each other’s feathers to show love and care. The male will also do this for the female throughout the entire egg-laying process!

Black-faced Spoonbill in shenzhen China
In autumn and winter which are not their mating seasons, black-faced spoonbills wear white plumage.


Black-faced spoonbills change the colour of their plumage with the seasons.

In autumn and winter (non-mating seasons), they wear white plumage, while during the mating seasons (spring and summer), mature birds are covered with yellow breeding plumage which extends from their heads to their breasts.

Breeding grounds in the Demilitarised Zone:

The DMZ (Demilitarised Zone), which was established after the Korean War and separates North and South Korea, has ironically become the largest and most successful breeding site for black-faced spoonbills.

Being off limits to human activity and development since 1953, the 4km stretch of land has been a sort of safe haven for the birds.

Platalea minor
The long beak of the black-faced spoonbill is similar to pipa, a Chinese musical instrument, hence in Chinese, it is known as the "pipa water bird".

Feeding habits:

Black-faced spoonbills are sensitive to their surroundings.

They usually live in groups around estuaries, wetlands or intertidal zones, occasionally, mingling with other species of water birds.

They prey on fish, shrimps and crustaceans in shallow waters like wetlands or ponds. When feeding, they partially open their beaks and sweep them from side to side in search of food.

Black-faced spoonbill crisis

Urbanisation led to a great reduction in wintering locations for migratory birds. Despite an increase in number of black-faced spoonbills, Hong Kong now sees fewer and fewer of them.

Urban activities:

Many black-faced spoonbill reserves in most eastern Asian coastal areas are being destroyed by the dense population and environmental pollution from farming and industrial activities.

The Deep Bay area of Hong Kong also faces increasing environmental challenges. In addition, urban activities have caused a decline in the amount of shallow water fish and shrimp for black-faced spoonbills to feed on.

In the long term, major breeding locations of black-faced spoonbills and wetlands within their wintering grounds should be protected from any pollution.

Black-faced Spoonbill (Platalea minor) seeking food in sea with twilight background
Urbanisation is causing black-faced spoonbills to gradually disappear from sight in certain cities.

Urban Construction:

An increase in urban construction activities in Hong Kong, Zhuhai and Macao has affected the lives of black-faced spoonbills, which are highly sensitive to their surroundings.

The ongoing urbanisation of the Greater Bay Area will turn mudflats and wetlands into new cities, causing ecological environments suitable for black-faced spoonbill habitats to gradually disappear.

In the near future, this species may choose other areas with better environment such as Taiwan and the southeastern coast of China, rather than the Deep Bay area and Macao.

Global Warming:

With a rise in global temperatures, the black-faced spoonbills may choose northern areas to spend the winter at instead.

Southern locations such as Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Macao, Vietnam and the Philippines will see a smaller number of black-faced spoonbills, while in Thailand and Cambodia, this species will almost disappear.

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