Flamingo (family Phoenicopteridae)

Today I want to blog about flamingos. They’re another one of those animals that I’ve heard about since I was a child (who hasn’t), but never really knew anything about. So to add to this woeful gap in my animal knowledge, let’s talk about flamingos!

There are six specie of flamingos which comprise the family Phoenicopteridae. Apparently, many of these species live in the Americas, with species living in Chile and the Andes. I had no idea flamingos lived there, I thought they only lived in Africa. This is very wrong, as flamingos live on every continent except for Antarctica and Australia. Who knew?

Flamingos prefer to live in large mud flats, where they can manipulate the ground to build mud mounds that serve them as nests. These are perfect for flamingos, especially if they are full of salt. These saline environments are too harsh for most animals, so flamingos don’t have to worry about predators. They also have the advantage of being full of flamingos favourite food source, blue-green algae and brine shrimp.

A picture of some flamingos I took at Sea World in San Diego. Notice the ridiculously long neck; flamingos often are seen with their heads resting on their bodies to save their necks from doing all the work.

A picture of some flamingos I took at Sea World in San Diego. Notice the ridiculously long neck; flamingos often are seen with their heads resting on their bodies to save their necks from doing all the work.

It’s this food that gives flamingos their distinctive colour – carotenoids in their diet turn the birds pink. The more carotenoids the flamingos eat, the pinker they are. The idea here is that birds that eat lots and are healthy will have a bright pink colour and those that are unthrifty will be paler. Thus, females know which mates to pick based on colour.

Flamingos are unique among birds and mammals in that their jaws are upside down. That is, their lower jaw is fixed and immovable while the upper part of their bill opens and closes. This is because when flamingos feed, they put their heads in water upside down and rake their bills along the bottom. The special structure of the bill and projections on the bird’s tongue help filter out any tasty morsels. It’s a weird way to feed, but hey, it works for them, right?

Like many birds, flamingos are monogamous, only mating with one bird for life (or until their mate perishes). They pick these mates in a rather odd way – instead of one single bird performing a courtship dance, the entire colony (which can number thousands) splits into groups and has a group dance session. These involve many behaviours, including head waggles, wing spreading and a twist preen, where birds tuck their heads under a wing.

Once birds have mated, both birds work together to build a nest out of mud. A single egg is laid into the nest, and incubation lasts for 28-32 days. Before the chicks hatch, vocalizations come from the egg. This allows the parents to recognize their chick, a key part of the chick’s survival. If the chick fails to produce these pre-hatching vocalizations, it wont imprint on the parents and they will not feed it. And a chick that doesn’t get fed doesn’t have a good chance of surviving (or any chance, really). Parents feed their chicks with a special ‘crop milk’ (the crop being a storage pouch in the birds’ digestive tract). This is similar in composition to mammalian milk, and production is stimulated by the same hormone used in mammals, prolactin. The major difference is that flamingos milk is red, because of the large number of carotenoids in the diet. We were trying to come up with a way to make red russians for a party next week – maybe we should use flamingo milk. Then again, it’s probably disgusting.

A flamingo tending to its chick. Chicks don't start to look like flamingos for a while after birth; the strange beak develops at two weeks and full adult plumage may not develop for five years.

A flamingo tending to its chick. Chicks don’t start to look like flamingos for a while after birth; the strange beak develops at two weeks and full adult plumage may not develop for five years.

After hatching, chicks spend the first week of their lives in the nest, after which they leave and go hang out with other chicks. These groups are called creches, which can contain thousands of chicks. The parents continue to care for their young at this time, and until they are 60-90 days old. You can see why the early imprinting of the chick and parents is so important – after all it’d be pretty hard to find your kid in a group of a thousand unless it knew its name.

So it turns out flamingos aren’t just pretty to look at – they’re fairly interesting too. By interesting I mean weird, which is pretty much the same thing when it comes to animals. Maybe I should rename this blog Our Weird World. Or not.

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