Your Subtitle text


The Flamboyant FlamingoS

Article and Images by Christina Bush

Flamingos are large, beautifully-colored wading birds that live in lagoons, shallow lakes, mangrove swamps and sandy beach areas near the low tide marks.  They are known for being very calm and for their pinkish wings and thin, long, twig-like legs.  Their feet are webbed and their plumage is waterproof, similar to geese.  The word “flamingo” comes from the Spanish and Latin word “flamenco” which means fire and refers to the bright color of the birds plumage.  

Flamingos are one of the most striking birds in the world ranging in colors from light cotton candy pink to orange to crimson red; many also have colors of cream and white mixed in.  The males and females all look alike, however the males are usually slightly larger and stand up to five feet tall.  Their pink, or reddish, color comes from beta carotene and the small brine shrimp, crustaceans and algae that they eat.  They also enjoy aquatic insects, which are caught by finger-like projections in their beaks called “lamellae”, seeds, blue and green algae and mollusks. 

There are six remaining species of flamingos left in the world:  the Andean, Caribbean, Chilean, James, Greater and Lesser Flamingos live throughout South America, the Caribbean and Africa.  The Greater flamingo is the largest species and can measure up to five feet tall and weighing up to eight pounds.  The Lesser flamingo is the smallest and can reach three feet tall.  There are also some small groups living in in India, southern Europe, Asia and a very small population lives in the Galapagos Islands.  

These birds are found on every continent except for Australia and Antarctica.  The Andean is the rarest species of flamingo and they live in shallow lakes located in the plateaus of the Andes mountains in South America.  The Andean flamingo, which has yellow legs and feet, is now classified as Vulnerable due to its drastic drop in numbers and the Galapagos population is considered especially vulnerable to natural disasters.  Low-flying planes during the 1940’s caused the desertion of the last American flamingo colony in the Bahamas, where 10,000 of the species formerly bred. 

These stunning birds can live in a variety of climates from hot volcanic lakes to the icy lakes of the Andean Mountains.  They can be found in areas where other species would not be able to survive for very long.  Living in groups called “colonies”, flamingos build their nests out of mouthfuls of mud and sticks. Colonies of flamingos in the wild can number up to 20,000 although the average colony has about 50-100 members. 

These birds are excellent swimmers and can fly hundreds of miles a day to find adequate amounts of food to survive on.  Most of this flight takes place at night, which is why many people rarely see them on the move.  Flamingos are not seen flying very often but they certainly can fly at speeds of up to 37 miles per hour, flying in flocks called “flamboyances”.  When relocating to a new habitat they can travel up to 300 miles to reach their new home.  

Flamingos take exceptionally good care of their young and all of the members of the colony help in the raising of them.  It is often a group effort to make sure all their needs are properly taken care of.  Pairs of males and females create mud-mound nests where only one egg is incubated for about 30 days.  The newborn offspring feature feathers that are gray or white, which darken with brilliant coloring as time passes. 

As they grow older in the first three years and begin to consume the diet of the adults, their feathers will develop shades of pink or red in them.  A chick’s bill is small and straight at birth but after a few months it will develop a distinct curve.  Unlike other birds, flamingos do not regurgitate their food for the young to eat.  This has long been a common misconception.  The average lifespan of the flamingo is 25 to 30 years in the wild and they have been recorded at ages approaching 50 in captivity. 

Flamingos eat with their heads upside down in the water so they can suck in food and water with the front of their bills and hold their breath while feeding.  Mud and water drain out of the back of the bill.  They rest while standing on one foot, which is thought to aid in keeping their body temperature warm, however the experts still don’t know the exact purpose of this really is.  The webbing between the birds toes helps them to stand in soft mud and also when swimming in water deeper than they can wade.  They are very social birds that thrive on interaction with one another.  They need access to plenty of food and water and many times refuse to nest unless their are other flamingos around.

Adult flamingos have few natural predators. The primary threats to flamingo populations are bacterias, toxins and pollutions in the waters supplies, which is usually run-off from manufacturing companies, and encroachment of their habitat.  The introduction of various types of industries has affected them negatively in the past several decades.  One of the biggest concerns is the spread of diseases because the birds live in such large colonies.  Hundreds or even thousands of flamingos could be killed in a very short period of time if hit by a tragic disease.  

Global warming is thought to reduce the natural habitats of flamingos as droughts dry up areas where the birds live and eat.  Their desire to mate and reproduce many times is lessened when the temperatures rise to uncomfortable levels.   As with many other wildlife species, poachers are the largest threat because they kill the birds for their decorative feathers, eggs and tongues, which are harvested for meat to be eaten. 

Problem areas need to develop strict anti-pollution guidelines to be enforced in the ranges where flamingos live.  Early intervention with efforts to protect them can greatly reduce or avoid problems that can develop later on.  Without amended laws and government intervention, global efforts to make advancements for the species will likely fail.  Conscious individuals must make wise choices in finding ways to reduce the problems and explore steps in the right direction for conserving the fabulous flamingos.