Flamingos: Phoenicopteriformes

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FLAMINGOS: Phoenicopteriformes



The five species in the Phoenicopteridae family are all flamingos. All five species have oval-shaped bodies with pink or crimson-red feathers covering their bodies. Their black flight feathers can be seen when they spread their wings. Flamingos have exceptionally long legs and necks, and their large bills curve downward in the middle. The upper part of the bill is smaller than the lower part, which is very unusual for birds. Their length from bill tip to tail varies between 31.5 to 63 inches (80 to 160 centimeters), and they weigh between 5.5 to 7.7 pounds (2.5 to 3.5 kilometers). The greater flamingo is about five feet (1.5 meters) tall. The smallest one, the lesser flamingo, is only about 3 feet (0.9 meter) tall.


Most flamingos live in South America and Africa. They also live in the Caribbean, southern Europe, southwest Asia, the Middle East, Pakistan, and India. Flamingos sometimes visit the Florida Keys and other places in southeastern United States.


Flamingos usually breed at large lakes, but they can feed in a large variety of shallow lakes and lagoons, either inland or coastal. The bodies of water can be small and are usually salty (even saltier than ocean water). But some flamingos also feed in fresh water or in rice fields. They find their food in lakes from sea level all the way up to 14,000-foot (3,500-meter) mountains. The Andean flamingos in South America feed on lakes loaded with natural chemicals (chlorides and sulfates) that other birds avoid. For that reason, the flamingos do not have to compete with other birds for the food in those lakes.


A flamingo feeds with its head upside down in the water. It sweeps its bill from side to side. The outer edges of both the upper and lower part of its bill are lined with two rows of comblike bristles called lamellae (luh-MEL-ee). As the bird sucks water into its mouth, the lamellae keeps large sea creatures from going in, while letting the foods it eats get through. Flamingos pump the water in and out with their tongues as they swallow their food. The lamellae on the smaller flamingo species are close together, and they keep out everything except algae (AL-jee), diatoms, and other very tiny organisms. The larger flamingo species have fewer lamellae and they eat a more varied diet including insects, snails, and brine shrimp.


Flamingos gather in enormous flocks for several reasons, the most important being protection from enemies. An eagle has a hard time sneaking up on them with two million eyes on the lookout. When flamingos eat together, they keep the food stirred up and moving around where the birds can easily suck it in. Because they lay their eggs at the same time, they can put their chicks in a big flock with a few adult "babysitters." Then the rest of the parents can fly off to eat. Flamingos sleep, fly to new places, and do practically everything else at the same time as the other flamingos.


Flamingos fly with their long necks and legs sticking straight out. When they find a good feeding spot, they often gather in enormous flocks. Sometimes the flocks number more than a million birds. Most flamingos do not migrate regularly, but they move when water levels change in their habitats. Everything they do depends on rainfall and drought patterns. When the water level is just right in a lake, hundreds of thousands of flamingos might breed there at the same time. In muddy areas, their nests are towers as tall 16 inches (40 centimeters) made of mud, stones, and shells. In rocky areas, the females lay their eggs right on the ground. Each pair has just one chick that is cared for by both parents. It takes the chicks between sixty-five and ninety days to learn to fly and feed themselves.


Pictures of flamingos appeared on cave drawings 7,000 years ago. People have hunted them and eaten their eggs for thousands of years, but many flamingos live in places that are hard for people to reach, and many others are protected by laws.


Four of the five species of flamingos are in trouble. The Andean flamingo is listed as Vulnerable, facing a high risk of extinction. The James's, Chilean, and lesser flamingos are listed as Near Threatened, not currently threatened, but could become so.


Physical characteristics: Greater flamingos are the largest species of flamingo. Most greater flamingo adults are white with a little pink in color, but those living in the Caribbean area are rosy red (the color depends on the food they eat). Their flight feathers are black and their bills are pink with a black tip. They are between 47 and 57 inches (1.2 to 1.5 meters) long from bill tip to tail, and they weigh between 4.6 to 9.0 pounds (2.1 to 3.4 kilograms). The males are larger than the females.

Geographic range: Greater flamingos live mostly near the seacoasts and on islands in the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, and Europe. There are some big inland populations in eastern Africa and Pakistan. Greater flamingos sometimes visit the Florida Keys and other places in southeastern United States.

Habitat: Greater flamingos usually breed on islands or along the shores of large lakes, but they can feed in a large variety of shallow lakes and lagoons, either inland or coastal. The bodies of water are usually salty, but some greater flamingos also feed in fresh water or in rice fields.

Diet: Greater flamingos sweep their heads upside down in shallow water and pump the water in and out of their bills with their tongues. Small water organisms get sucked into their mouths between the comblike bristles in their bills. Their food includes insects, brine shrimp, snails, seeds, algae, and diatoms.

Behavior and reproduction: The greater flamingos that breed the farthest north in Europe and Asia migrate south in fall and fly north again in spring. But most of these birds do not migrate. Instead, they move around in huge flocks as the water levels change during rainy and dry seasons.

If the conditions are not just right at a breeding lake, the flamingos may not breed at all. Or they might all go off and find a new place to breed. If a breeding site is exceptionally good, the birds may raise two chicks in the same year, one right after the other.

When a pair of greater flamingos builds a mud nest, both help with the job. If they nest on a rocky island, however, the female lays her one egg on the ground. The parents take turns sitting on the egg for about a month. When the chick hatches, they feed it a nourishing red liquid that they make in their throats. The chicks bark like puppies when they want to be fed. Parents know their young by their voices and will feed no other chicks, even when the young are gathered in groups. The parents feed them the red liquid meals for four weeks, and then they start to feed them food that they regurgitate (cough up) from their stomachs. By the age of ten to twelve weeks, the young birds can fly off and feed themselves.

Greater flamingos and people: Thousands of years ago, the Egyptians used greater flamingos as the symbol for "red" in their picture writing. They also called flamingos the living form of Ra, their sun god. Roman emperors ate flamingo tongues as a specialty, while Roman poets wrote that it was a shame to kill such beautiful birds for their tongues. Some people still kill greater flamingos for sport or to eat their meat and eggs, but many of the birds live in protected or hard-to-reach areas. Since the invention of plastic, some people have enjoyed having flocks of pink plastic flamingos on their lawns.

Conservation status: Greater flamingos are not listed as threatened. Their numbers have been going down in the Caribbean area and going up in southwestern Europe. The worldwide population of greater flamingos changes often, depending on the rains and whether or not a year is good for breeding. ∎



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