Flamingo: Victims of Industry?
At first look, Flamingos are the most recognizable wading birds in the world. These large birds can be identified by their long necks, legs that resemble sticks, and pink or reddish feathers. Flamingos literally live by the saying “you are what you eat” since the pink and reddish colors of a Flamingo’s feathers come from eating pigments commonly found in algae and invertebrates. Unfortunately, due to unnatural changes caused by humans in its habitat, the Flamingo is slowly heading toward a dim future.
How Nikela Helps
Although Nikela does not have a project that directly protects Flamingos, many awareness campaigns address the plight of Africa’s wild animals and birds as a whole. As Nikela is for preserving all wild things and their wild places.
Facts about the Flamingo
Flamingos belong to the Aves (birds) class and the Ciconiiformes and Phoenicopteriformes orders. Members of the Ciconiiformes order are known to have long legs and necks. Although Flamingos are generally considered a member of the Ciconiiformes order now, scientists were confused about the classification of Flamingos for many years. As a result, Flamingos were placed in their own category called Order Phoenicopteriformes. Flamingos are the only members of the family Phoenicopteridae. This Family’s prominent characteristics include long legs, a curved and lengthy neck, and a voice with a goose-like quality. There are three separate genera and five species of Flamingos regarded as Phoenicopterus ruber, Phoenicopterus chilensis (the Chilean flamingo), Phoenicopterus minor (the Lesser Flamingo), Phoenicoparrus jamesi (the James’ flamingo), and Phoenicoparrus andinus (the Andean flamingo). Phoenicopterus ruber is split in half into the geographically separated subspecies named P.r. ruber (the Caribbean Flamingo) and P.r. roseus (the Greater Flamingo).
Distribution and Habitat:
All Flamingos live in tropical and subtropical areas. Chilean and Andean Flamingos can be spotted in South America, greater and Lesser Flamingos are found in Africa and Middle East, and the Caribbean subspecies belongs in Mexico, the Caribbean, and the northernmost tip of South America. The James’ Flamingo has the most limited range of all Flamingo species. These dwell in southern Peru, northeastern Chile, western Bolivia, and northwestern Argentina. Numerous habitats are used by Flamingos. Mangrove swamps, tidal flats, and sandy islands in the inter tidal zone are a few of them. The Flamingo’s most popular habitats are large alkaline or saline lakes and estuarine lagoons that often don’t have much vegetation to offer. Flamingos are known to prefer lagoons or large shallow lakes too. There is a chance these bodies of water could be quite salty or caustic, which is too much to handle for the majority of other animals. In some lakes, the only other animals they come into contact with are algae, diatoms, and small crustaceans. These lakes may be far inland or near the sea. Flamingos are typically non-migratory birds. However, due to changes in the climate and water levels in their breeding areas, Flamingo colonies aren’t always permanent.
It is difficult to mistake Flamingos for any other type of bird because of their easily distinctive pink and crimson plumage, long legs and necks, and strongly hooked bills. The Flamingo’s pink and reddish color is due to the rich sources of carotenoid pigments in the algae and small crustaceans that these birds eat. Caribbean Flamingos, the subspecies of Greater Flamingo, are the brightest of Flamingos, characterized with red, pink, or orange colored feathers on their legs, bills, and faces. Flamingos’ legs are longer than their bodies and are between 31 and 49 inches long depending on the species. Flamingos actually have the greatest leg to body size ratio compared to any other bird. It might appear that Flamingos bend their knees backwards when they walk, but this is a common misconception. The joints halfway up their legs are really their ankles, which bend the same way the ankles of humans do. Their knees are higher up their legs, near their bodies, and are hidden by their feathers. Flamingos have long legs that aid them in wading into much deeper water than other wading birds can, eventually decreasing competition for the supply of algae. Flamingos have a unique beak shape other family of birds don’t have. While mammals and other birds have a fixed upper jaw, Flamingos move their upper jaw to eat as the lower jaw remains motionless. Their bills angle and curve downward so when they open their mouths, the gap between the upper and lower jaws is uniform, which is helpful for filter feeding. Flamingos tilt their heads upside down in the water to eat, and their tongues strain the water from the algae they feed on. In addition to their pink feathers, Flamingos’ elongated necks complement their long legs. Their nineteen vertebrae call for flexibility in the movement range and flexibility of their necks, which Flamingos can twist and stretch comfortably. Neck movements are prominent in Flamingos’ elaborate mating displays, where males participate in routines that are believed to be choreographed to attract the best females. However, it is necessary for Flamingos to rest their heads on their bodies to prevent muscle fatigue.
Flamingos filter feed on brine shrimp and blue-green algae. Their beaks are specifically adapted to set mud and silt apart from the food they eat, and are uniquely put to use upside-down. Hairy structures called lamellae that line the mandibles and a large rough-surfaced tongue contribute to the filter feeding. The lamellae act like tiny filters since they trap shrimp and other small water creatures for the Flamingo to eat. The smaller puna, Andean, and lesser flamingos have deeper bills and stiff lamellae, which help them filter certain fine particles, such as algae, through their bill and keep bigger particles out. Greater and Chilean Flamingos are larger and mostly rely on invertebrates such as brine flies, shrimps, and mollusks to keep them full. They get these food items from the bottom mud by wading in shallow water. Long legs let Flamingos wade into deeper water seek this food. There are times when they swim to get their food by “upending” with their tail feathers in the air and head underwater like ducks.
Behavior and Socialization:
Research into Flamingo behavior is limited due to their secluded and constantly changing lifestyles all over the world. Most of the research poured into the Flamingo’s behavior has only occurred in the captivity setting. There are behavioral characteristics that researchers have discovered that are familiar to most Flamingo species. Scientists have just started to learn some of the background causes for Flamingo behavior. For example, Flamingos are easily recognized for their one-legged stance. This has been connected to the Flamingo attempting to save heat energy and to give one of their legs a break. This is a supposedly a characteristic that is mandatory, especially in the case of Flamingos that spend long hours in cold water and high altitude climates like the Andean Flamingo. These birds are known to spend their days feeding, sleeping, resting, bathing, swimming or migrating. When Flamingos sleep, they rest their heads on their back. This requires the bird to turn their neck all the way around. Waterproofing their feathers with oil, which is called preening, takes up about 15 to 30 percent of their everyday routine. Flamingos that aren’t breeding go by a nocturnal feeding schedule in which they feed at night. On the other hand, breeding Flamingos will eat at day, night, or both. The non-breeding Flamingos sleep mostly during the day or they choose to bathe. Also, Flamingos prefer to travel at night to avoid predators. Because Flamingos are vocal birds, the variety of sounds that Flamingos can produce differs from breed to breed. For instance, the American Flamingo can grunt softly or create a deeper growling if alarmed or frightened. Flamingos are social birds so they group together in colonies or flocks. Flamingo flock sizes range from a few birds to a few hundred to even tens of thousands of birds. The average flock size is estimated to be about 100 birds. Small flocks are rare because a larger flock size is a major advantage Flamingos have over predators. Flamingos in small flocks have a greater chance of being attacked by a predator. Varied diets among Flamingo species allow two or more species of Flamingo to co-habituate in the same area. The Lesser Flamingo prefers a diet of shrimp and algae, for example.
Flamingos don’t struggle with finding a mate. They participate in synchronized mating rituals, and they are monogamous with their mate most of the time although there are some situations where Flamingos have been observed mating with different mates. Flamingos and their mates share a lot of the responsibilities that have to do with reproduction such as building the nest, protecting the grounds, feeding, and care. Flamingos may choose to leave their larger flock to create a smaller flock that commences mating. This can occur at several different times a year as the synchronized pattern of mating is necessary for the success of the group. Nesting is a major part of Flamingo reproduction too. Both males and females work hard to build a mound before the egg is laid since the mound ensures that the egg will be protected from flood and extreme heat. This process can start as early as 6 weeks before the egg is laid. When the female is ready, she will lay the egg on the mound where a water well about a foot high was created. Females usually lay one egg, and it takes approximately 28 to 31 days to hatch. Scientists have observed that Flamingos don’t mate at any particular time during the year, but follow a pattern that is led by rainfall and food resources instead. This can take place up to two times a year or not even once a year if there is a drought or lack of food resources. The rituals performed can be mixture of some of the common rituals or a simply one. Some of the animals’ head turning and wing flapping motions can look like dancing. The group starts by preening, the males then group together, and then potential mates call out to each other. The female walks away and the male follows and leaves the group. Scientist from National Geographic learned that during a mating season, Flamingos are a deeper pink. This is due to the preening that occurs before mating. Flamingos put their focus on their feathers in hopes of attracting a mate. When the eggs starts to hatch, the scientists noted that the Flamingos began to lose their color. Other bird species have similar rituals that occur around mating time. They partake in similar methods of applying “makeup” to attract mates. Mating at the same time is to make sure that the eggs will hatch around the same time so that the chicks can form groups of their own called micro clicks. These clicks are needed for the safety of the chicks since a chick that strays from its group is bound to be attacked by a predator or accidentally trampled by an adult Flamingo. Flamingo chicks mature quite rapidly in order to increase their chances of survival. They can start leaving the nest after nearly 7 days. A few months later, they are swimming and learning to fly. Chicks reach sexual maturity by the age of 6. At that time, they can start mating and having their own chicks.
Flamingos tend to live a long life in the wild with an average lifespan of 25 to 30 years. In captivity, some of them have been recorded as living up to 40 and even 50 years long.
Conservation Status and Threats:
Adult Flamingos have very few natural predators. The primary threats to Flamingo populations include bacteria, toxins and pollution in their water supplies, which are usually run-off from manufacturing companies, and encroachment of their habitat. The introduction of various types of industries has negatively affected them 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 a tragic disease is introduced. However, all species of Flamingos are listed in CITES Appendix II. This Appendix lists species that are in need of protection and are considered to be threatened and likely to become endangered if trade isn’t regulated.
Contributed by Nikela Volunteer Sherah Janay