Strong Colors: Flamingos of the Wild

Flamingos are among the most unique and well-known of birds. Characterized by their beautiful coloration and unusually long legs, these attractive birds have become among the most popular of zoo and wildlife park exhibits. However, it is when one observes these incredible animals in the wild that their true marvels of design are seen. Surviving in some of the most dangerous habitats in the world, these birds have proven themselves to be tougher than their appearance suggests. From the flatlands of Africa to the mountain ranges of South America, these birds can be found throughout the world. Throughout their lives they encounter many different challenges, yet these large birds persevere and carry out what they must do in order to survive and multiply. More than just a pleasing sight, the flamingo is a marvelously designed survivor that can bear the challenges of the merciless wilderness.

All six flamingo species can be found throughout the world, often residing in locations once thought to be unusual for the birds. The most widespread species is the greater flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus), which can be found in Central and South America, the Caribbean, southwest Europe, Asia, and Africa. Greater flamingos survive in both freshwater and saltwater, and are common sights in lakes, estuaries, and lagoons (often adding to the beauty of these areas). Those which occur outside of tropical regions must often migrate to warmer locations during the cold winter months.[1] The Chilean flamingo (Phoenicopterus chilensis) is the second most widespread species and occurs throughout most of South America. These flamingos can be found at sea level or at altitudes of more than 14,000 feet, usually in areas containing brackish water or alkaline water (which is unable to sustain many organisms, and thus tends to be free of most possible predators).[2] The Andes mountains of South America are also home to two species which are found nowhere else in the world, the Andean flamingo (Phoenicopterus andinus) and Puna flamingos (Phoenicopterus jamesi). Both species can be found at high altitudes (more than 9000 feet), often sharing the same habitat along with the more widespread Chilean flamingos.[3][4] The Puna species may sometimes migrate to lower altitudes during winter, but those which reside in hot springs usually find no need to migrate.[5] The beautiful Caribbean flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber) is the only species to occur naturally in North America (specifically Florida), but the species can also be found in the Caribbean, the Yucatan Peninsula, and the Galapagos Islands.[6] The last species, known as the lesser flamingo (Phoenicopterus minor), is found only in South Africa. They are the most numerous of the flamingo species, and never migrate.[7]

The Chilean flamingo can be found at altitudes of more than 14,000 feet above sea level.

Flamingos are sizable birds. Even the smallest species, the lesser flamingo, can get surprisingly tall with a maximum height of up to four feet (though they usually weigh no more than five pounds).[8] The greater flamingo, being the largest species, can reach slightly over five feet at the tallest and can weigh up to eight pounds.[9] All of these birds are known for their beautiful pink and red coloration, yet these are not actually their true colors. Flamingos are born with white and gray feathers, but their diet is often the cause of the development of vibrant colors. The specific diet can vary from species to species, but the coloration effects take place in nearly all flamingos (the development of these colors commonly takes about three years).[10] Specifically, it is the alpha and beta-carotene in their diets that causes the development of their colors.[11] Some flamingos can develop very beautiful shades of deep red over time.

The greater flamingo is the largest of the flamingo species, as well as the most widespread in its distribution. © Scotch Macaskill

Flamingos are very social animals and thrive in large colonies. The smallest of these colonies can consist of around 50 birds. However, there are large colonies of up to 20,000 birds, and the largest colony (located in East Africa) actually consists of more than a million flamingos![12] Flamingos possess an interesting social structure and they commonly communicate using non verbal cues. Among their unique behaviors is head flagging, where they stretch back their necks, raise them up, and turn them from side to side. Wing saluting is another common behavior that is known as a friendly form of interaction between flamingos. Preen twisting, seen during courting, involves the male rapidly twisting its neck backwards and using its bill to preen the feathers. The purpose of this action is to impress a female and win her over. Marching is yet another interesting behavior among flamingos where they march in one direction for a certain length of time and then quickly turn to another direction in a synchronized manner.[13]

Flamingos are very social birds and can form colonies consisting of thousands of individuals.

Flamingos are usually preening their feathers or eating when they are not involved in group activities. Their varied diet can consist of diatoms, seeds, blue-green algae, crustaceans, and mollusks. The flamingos stamp down on the muddy water with their feet to mix food particles together, and then filter out the food from the water using their beaks. The filtering process is somewhat unusual but actually quite simple. The flamingo lowers its head into the water upside down and then swings it side to side in order to collect the food/water mixture. The flamingo’s tongue, which is spiny and piston-like, works much like a water pump. It pushes water past the tooth-like ridges outside of the beak and the lamellae (finger-like projections) inside the beak. The lamellae function as strainers, removing the food particles from the water being pumped out by the tongue.[14] The process is extremely quick, as flamingos can filter as many as 20 beak-fulls of food-rich water in a single second.[15] This simple yet ingeniously designed system makes the flamingo a living filter which helps to clean the ecosystem’s water.

The Caribbean flamingo possess incredible coloration. Photo Credit: Aaron Logan

Flamingos reach sexual maturity at about six years of age. Flamingo males do not mate with several females, but instead pair off with a single partner.[16] For these birds, finding available females is usually an easy task considering the immense sizes their colonies can reach. Convincing the females to pair up with them, however, is a different story altogether. Male flamingos often have to impress available females by engaging in a variety of courtship rituals. These displays begin with the flamingos standing together and raising their necks in alert positions. Calling and head-flagging soon commence, eventually leading to other displays such as twist preening, inverted wing salutes, and wing-leg stretches while calling increases in volume.[17] Once a pair is created, the male follows the female into the water. The female soon bends her neck down toward the water as if she were to begin feeding. Once the female is ready for mating, she submerges her head completely into the water and spreads her wings open in order to invite the male to copulate with her. The male mounts her and the female remains motionless until mating concludes.[18] Interestingly enough, mating does not take place at any set time of the year. In fact, flamingos do not even mate annually. Mating only takes place when there is sufficient rainfall, which allows the flamingos to find materials for building nests more easily. Rainfall also increases the food supply of the flamingos. Furthermore, when mating takes place, the entire colony is involved in the event of finding females.[19]

The lesser flamingo is the smallest of the six flamingo species as well as the most numerous. It is found in South Africa.

The parents prepare a nest by creating a dome-shaped mound and taking turns building it by sitting in the middle and pulling mud up around the sides of the mound with their necks. The female flamingo usually lays a single 4-5 ounce egg which both parents take turns incubating for 27-31 days. Hours before the chick hatches, it begins to call out for its mother. The mother returns with calls of its own. The purpose of these calls is for the mother and chick to be able to locate each other within the colony. Both parents feed the chick a red secretion consisting of fat, protein carbohydrate, and blood. Called crop milk, this secretion is produced by a gland in the upper digestive tract. Once the chick opens its beak for food, one of the parents drops their bill above the opening and releases the crop milk into the chick’s mouth. The parents continue to feed the chick until it is about three weeks old, where it will then join its own group along with other chicks.[20]

A group of greater flamingos.

Flamingos can encounter danger at a very young age, where the mortality rate of most animals is very high. Vultures and storks of several different varieties can easily attack and kill chicks. Depending on the area, flamingos may encounter other predators as well. In Africa, they face danger from pythons, leopards, lions, cheetahs, hyenas, and jackals (which can be threats to flamingos of any size). In India they also encounter pythons and leopards as well as larger predators such as tigers.[21] However, flamingos do not cross paths with predators as often as other birds. Due to their preference for alkaline bodies of water, flamingos can thrive in places where few other creatures can. These waters are full of sodium carbonate and will burn nearly any creature that dares to enter. Flamingos are very resistant to these waters, however. They can comfortably feed on the algae teeming in these caustic waters, with little to no worries. As a result, they are generally safe from predators in these environments.[22] Even when outside of these protective areas, flamingos always have numbers on their side. If a single flamingo spots an oncoming predator, it will attempt to make an escape, and the rest of the colony will react accordingly. Thus, even in environments where they are more vulnerable to predators, flamingos can feed with little worry knowing that there are others which are bound to spot any meticulous predators.[23] These birds can prove incredibly difficult for predators to hunt under nearly any circumstances.

Photograph Credit: David Blank

When most think of flamingos, they often imagine attractive yet frail-seeming birds which commonly reside in tropical parks and zoos. However, these colorful survivors have proven themselves to be much sturdier than most might believe. Capable of surviving in some of the most dangerous environments in nature and forming massive colonies which provide nearly limitless protection from predators, flamingos are incredibly interesting creatures. They are uniquely designed to make the most of what little their often dangerous habitats can provide them with, and possess an intriguing social structure which sets them apart from many other animals. Flamingos are simply incredible animals which survive under extreme conditions, keeping their attractive looks the entire time.

[1] “Greater Flamingos.” The Animal Available from Internet; accessed 18 May 2011.

[2] “Chilean Flamingo.” The Animal Available from Internet; accessed 18 May 2011.

[3] “Andean Flamingo.” The Animal Available from Internet; accessed 18 May 2011.

[4] “Puna Flamingo.” The Animal Available from Internet; accessed 18 May 2011.

[5] Ibid

[6] “Caribbean Flamingo.” The Animal Available from Internet; accessed 18 May 2011.

[7] “Lesser Flamingo.” The Animal Available from Internet; accessed 18 May 2011.

[8] “Lesser Flamingo Facts.” Available from Internet; accessed 18 May 2011.

[9] “Greater Flamingo Facts.” Available from Internet; accessed 18 May 2011.

[10] “Facts about Flamingos.” Available from Internet; accessed 18 May 2011.

[11] “Flamingos.” www. the wild Available from Internet; accessed 18 May 2011.

[12] “Information and Facts about Flamingos.” Available from Internet; accessed 18 May 2011.

[13] “Flamingo Social Structure.” Available from Internet; accessed 18 May 2011.

[14] “Flamingos.” www. the wild Available from Internet; accessed 18 May 2011.

[15] “Flamingo Facts.” Available from Internet; accessed 18 May 2011.

[16] “Flamingo Reproduction.” Available from Internet; accessed 18 May 2011.

[17] “MATING SYSTEM .” Available from Internet; accessed 18 May 2011.

[18] Ibid

[19] “Flamingo Reproduction.” Available from Internet; accessed 18 May 2011.

[20] “MATING SYSTEM .” Available from Internet; accessed 18 May 2011.

[21] “Flamingo Predators.” Available from Internet; accessed 18 May 2011.

[22] “World of the Fire Bird.” Available from Internet; accessed 18 May 2011.

[23] “Greater Flamingo.” National Available from Internet; accessed 18 May 2011.