Description & Behavior

Who wouldn’t recognize greater flamingos, Phoenicopterus ruber (Linnaeus, 1758)? Also known as American flamingos, reaching about 2 kgs in weight, these amazing birds have long, spindly legs, gracefully curved necks and famously bright pink feathers, feet and legs. The Galapagos variety is slightly lighter in color, due to their diet. The greater flamingo’s wingspan may reach up to 1.4 m. Their hooked bill is pink with a black tip and no other bird has one like it.

World Range & Habitat

A very social creature, greater flamingos like to be surrounded by many of its own kind; they live and breed in very large colonies or “pats” of several hundred individuals. They seem to prefer areas with plenty of mud and water, such as salt lakes, freshwater lakes and other lagoons. Their neotropical habitat stretches from central Peru to southern Argentina and Chile, including parts of Bolivia, Paraguay, southern Brazil and the Galapagos.

Feeding Behavior (Ecology)

Flamingos’ long backward-bending legs aren’t just there to look funny. The birds use their legs to stir up mud, then search for food — diatoms, seeds, blue-green algae, a few kinds of crustaceans and mollusks — in the muck, using their slitted beaks to filter out food. They will feed at any time of day or night.

Life History

Flamingos generally breed between March and mid-July, constructing nests out of mud that may reach 25 cm high and 40 cm in width. Some birds may return to the same nesting site year after year. Although greater flamingos, like many birds, do form long-term pair bonds, they are also known to cheat a bit. During mating, the male tucks his legs under the female’s wings. Once impregnated, the female usually lays a single egg, which she and the male take turns incubating for a month (28-32 days), straddling the nest with their long legs on either side. The egg is elongate and chalky white with a blood-red yolk. Babies are born agile, able to run and swim, but they do not look like their parents; they are gray with a straight bill (though their upper bill may have a slight hook). They obtain their pink color by eating shrimp and other similarly pigmented aquatic creatures. Like many birds, the parents feed their young by regurgitation. The young are fledged (able to fly) in 75-77 days.

Conservation Status & Comments

The greater flamingo’s worst enemy is man. They are not a food species, although flamingo tongues were considered a delicacy in ancient Rome. However, flamingos are occasionally the target of hunters and habitat destruction has made life more difficult for them in many places; flamingos are extremely sensitive to disturbance. (The birds themselves may cause some of this destruction. Although they help keep levels of small crustaceans, mollusks, and blue-green algae stable—by eating them—they may also flood their own lagoons if they wash away too much soil when creating their nests.) Other enemies include climatic changes, rising waters, disease and predators, especially of chicks.

References & Further Research

Ehrlich, P., Dobkin, D., and Wheye, D. (1988). The Birders Handbook: A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds. New York: Simon and Schuster Inc.

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