|Geographical Range||Bahamas, West Indies, the Mexican Yucatan, northern South America, Galapagos Islands; occasionally, coastal United States from the Carolinas to Texas|
|Habitat||Shallow coastal lagoons, salt lakes and mudflats|
|Scientific Name||Phoenicopterus ruber ruber|
No doubt about it – the flamingo is a curious-looking bird. Its body is extremely slender, its head small, its bill strangely curved and hooked. And then there’s the matter of color – how many animals can you name that are HOT PINK?
They Are What They Eat
Flamingos owe their peculiar looks to their feeding habits. Their elongated body, neck and legs allow them to wade into much deeper water than most shore birds, thereby expanding their food choices. (They can even swim, if necessary.)
Flamingos use their webbed feet to stir up the mud, then plunge their long bill upside down underwater. With a unique pumping action of their piston-like tongue, they suck up a variety of small animals, including small shrimp and other crustaceans, mollusks, invertebrates like insects and larvae, and blue-green algae. Their upper and lower jaws have ridged edges that serve as a filter, straining out water and mud at the sides of the bill, so the bird swallows little except its prey. (Baleen whales filter feed like this, too, though without the sucking tongue and long bill!)
Even the flamingos’ notoriously-colored plumage is a result of their diet. Their brilliant red, hot pinks, corals and oranges come from the carotenoid pigments in the algae and in some of the crustaceans that the birds eat (similar to the pigment in carrots).
An Ocean of Pink
Flamingos are social birds. They live in large groups, sometimes up to tens of thousands of birds, an undulating ocean of pink. The sound of a large flamingo flock is also impressive (they’re often mistaken for geese) and can be heard a great distance away. The birds are very vocal and use a wide variety of honks, alarm calls and other vocalizations.
Flamingos in a colony feed together, breed together, and fly together. They eat by day, but when a feeding area no longer provides enough food for the flock, the birds move to another location at night.
The birds are quite distinctive looking in flight. They stretch out their long necks and legs and spread their wings so the black undersides are visible. A flamingo’s wingspan can range from three to five feet, depending on the size of the bird.
Within a colony, flamingos breed in pairs, usually all at about the same time. Pair bonds are not strong, and pairs may change from one season to the next.
Scientists think flamingos need a "critical mass" of birds to initiate breeding and that smaller flocks tend not to breed as well as larger ones. Breeding season is quite a sight, with large numbers of flamingos engaged in elaborate courtship displays -- including marching, head turning (known as flagging), calling and preening. This simultaneous breeding assures that most of the birds in the colony lay their eggs and raise their young at the same time.
Once a pair of flamingos breeds, both male and female help build a nest. A flamingo nest is simple – basically just a mound of mud about a foot high. The mound serves to protect the egg and chick from floods and ground heat. The female lays a single, large egg. Both parents take turns sitting on the nest (folding their legs beneath them) until the chick hatches.
Bringing Up Baby
A Caribbean flamingo hatchling is gray-white, and for the first month or so its bill is straight, not curved like an adult bill. The chick stays in the nest for up to two weeks. During this time, both parents take turns feeding it a type of “milk” called crop milk, which comes from the parents’ digestive tract. The chick’s begging seems to stimulate production of this milk, either in its parents or in other adult foster-feeders. (Many pigeon species also produce crop milk.)
After two weeks, flamingo chicks join other chicks in the colony to form a large nursery creche, supervised by the parents. The creche in some species can contain as many as 30,000 birds, yet parents seem to have a remarkable ability to find their chick in the creche, recognizing it by its calls.
Chicks can feed themselves at four to six weeks old, but parents continue feeding them until they fledge.
- There are six species of flamingos. The Caribbean – a subspecies of the greater flamingo -- is the most brightly colored and the most widely distributed.
- By eating blue-green algae, flamingos help control the algae level in many wetlands.
- The only obvious difference between the sexes is size – the male flamingo is somewhat larger than the female.
- It’s not a myth – flamingos actually DO stand on one leg. It seems to be a comfortable resting position.
- Flamingos are long-lived. In the wild, they can live to 40 years old; in captivity they’ve been known to reach 60.