Creature Feature: Flamingos

pink flamingo preening its wings

Flamingos conjure images of tropical locations, beachside holidays, and quirky lawn decorations. But there’s more to these pretty pink birds than it seems. 

Tickled Pink

A flamboyance of flamingos

You may have heard that flamingos get their colour from eating salmon. It’s true that they turn pink because of their diet, but they don’t eat fish at all! Flamingos are brine feeders, which means they eat things like shrimp, larvae, molluscs, algae and other small animals and plants. Like baleen whales, they trap creatures in their mouths and filter the water out through comb-like plates in their bills. 

The pink colour comes from carotenoids found in blue-green algae, which are the pigments that give colour to carrots, pumpkins, lobsters and salmon. The more carotenoids they consume, the pinker the bird; American flamingos tend to be a richer, darker pink than the paler hues of other species. 

Flamingo Anatomy

Besides this, flamingos seem like pretty simple birds. And given that their brains are smaller than their eyeballs, it’s easy to think that there’s not much going on in their heads! 

Their anatomy is quite fascinating and strange. They can grow up to five feet, and they’re pretty good fliers despite their appearance. They turn their heads upside when they’re filter-feeding, and what we think of as their knee is actually their ankle joint! That’s right – what looks like a sitting flamingo is really just stretching its foot. Their real knees are actually tucked up, hidden under their feathers. They’re also capable of sleeping while standing on one leg – the reason for this has baffled scientists for years, but it’s believed that they actually conserve more energy on one leg than two. Another explanation is that it helps them stay warm so that less heat escapes through their legs.

A flamingo sitting on its "knees" - actually ankle joints

Flamingo Habitat

Flamingos have some interesting living situations. They make their nests in shallow saltwater out of mud. But some species spend their leisure time in extreme environments. The lesser flamingo in Africa makes its homes in hypersaline lakes – aka extremely salty bodies of water. These lakes are so dangerously salty that no other animal can survive in them. The reason that flamingos can handle the salt burns is that they have incredibly tough skin on their legs. Even baby flamingos are at risk of harm due to the toxic levels of salinity. This is a risky way to raise a family, but it protects the birds from predators such as crocodiles and stops their eggs from being eaten by snakes and other scavengers. The super-salty water has the added bonus of being a breeding ground for the flamingo’s favourite blue-green algae.

So if they live in such hostile waters, some of which can even burn off human skin, what do they drink? That much salt isn’t healthy for anyone, but it’s no problem for flamingos! They have special glands in their head that remove salt and drain it out of their nasal cavavities. Oh, and they can also drink near-boiling water. 

Birds of a Feather

A group of pale flamingos in dark water

Flamingos are incredibly social birds. The name for a group of them is a “flamboyance” of flamingos, and these can clock in at over a million individuals. They function as a massive community and the law of large numbers protects them from land predators like jackals and hyenas. 

Because they live in such hostile environments, their survival depends on a very fine balance of many factors. Everything in their habitat is fighting against them, so a chick making it into adulthood is a challenging feat. The entire flamingo colony breed at the same time to make raising their chicks easier, in the spirit of “it takes a village to raise a child”. The biological exchange for their low survival rate is their long lifespan – in the wild they can live to around 50 years, and captive flamingos have lived into their 80s! 

I was so delighted to learn that there’s more to flamingos than just being pink. They’re a great example of adapting to the harshest of environments. Every new fact I learn about them is more and more fascinating. Given the size of their brains, it’s likely that they don’t even know how ridiculously extreme their day-to-day lives are. They’re enjoying some leisure time in a hot spring that would seriously injure any other creature, and they’re not even aware of it.

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