Flamingos

american-flamingo_denverzoo_lah_4364When I was growing up, our elementary school classrooms were always decorated in seasonal colors… black and orange for October, red and green in December, and pink and red for February. Therefore, in honor of that long-lasting tradition, today’s post is about one of our most popular pink birds.

When we think of pink, the first bird that probably comes to mind is the flamingo. While there are six species of flamingo worldwide, and four in the Americas, only one is found wild in the United States—the American Flamingo. Even then, it takes a lot of effort and even more luck to actually see them in the US. Their normal range encompasses the Caribbean and the Galapagos (these two populations are divided into two subspecies), and only rarely are they seen near the southern tip of Florida.

chilean-flamingo_denverzoo_20091007_lah_3656-rOn a visit to the Everglades National Park a few years ago, I suffered over 75 mosquito bites (in spite of three layers of bug spray) as I hauled my scope and sweaty body several miles over the Snake Bight Trail (good thing it wasn’t “snake bite trail”!) in a futile effort to add the American Flamingo to my life list. At least I got a couple of new birds along the way, and the gigantic alligator waiting at the far end of the trek was pretty impressive!

Most of us have at least seen flamingos at the zoo. There we can watch them as they stand around on one long leg. If we’re lucky, we can see them communicate with one another in one of their ritualized display patterns.

flamingos-dallasaquarium-2006dec30-lah-008Flamingos tend to congregate in huge flocks, often among the brackish ponds of evaporating salt flats. Food is limited in such inhospitable habitats, but there are lots of brine shrimp and lots of algae. This is where that long neck comes in handy. The birds wade into the water, turn their heads upside down, and strain blue-green algae, shrimp, other small aquatic creatures out of the bottom mud. It’s the pigments in the algae that lend their bright color to the birds’ feathers. And that’s why two other birds, the Roseate Spoonbill and the Scarlet Ibis, are the same flaming pink—the same pigments travel up the food chain and end up in their diets, too.

No trees grow in salt flats, so the flamingos build their nests on the ground. They simply scrape together a volcano-shaped mound of mud about a foot tall and lay an egg on top. Mom and Dad both do egg duty, and they both help feed the chick when it hatches. Both parents and bystanders respond to a chick’s hungry begging by regurgitating a milky substance called “crop milk” that’s secreted in the adult bird’s upper digestive tract.

Apparently, five to twelve days of parental supervision is all the chick can handle. At this point they leave home and hang out with their peers, wading and swimming and living the good life. Lest we be too impressed, however, the young birds continue to depend on mom and dad for their food for the next two months, until their beaks develop enough to strain mud for themselves. It seems that some behaviors are common to many species.

flamingos-boulder-20070503-lah-261While there are lots of flamingos in the world, their breeding sites are severely restricted, perhaps numbering fewer than thirty*. Thus, they are at great risk from habitat destruction, pollution, or other man-made or natural disasters. While the US government doesn’t list any species of flamingo as endangered, CITES (the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) considers all six species to be threatened and in need of protection. It would be a sad day indeed if the only flamingos we could ever see were the plastic ones in peoples’ yards!
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* estimate according to The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust

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