Genus and species:
Phoenicopterus ruber (greater flamingo and Caribbean flamingo subspecies)
Phoenicopterus chilensis (Chilean)
Phoeniconaias minor (lesser)
Phoenicopparrus andinus (Andean)
Phoenicopparrus jamesi (puna, or James’)
Height: 3.3 to 4.6 feet (1 to 1.4 meters)
Wingspan: 3.3 to 5 feet (1 to 1.6 meters)
Weight: 3.3 to 9 pounds (1.5 to 4.1 kilograms)
Life span: 20 to 30 years; up to 50 years not unusual
Number of eggs laid: usually 1
Size of eggs: 3 to 3.5 inches (78 to 90 millimeters) long; 4 to 4.9 ounces (115 to 140 grams)
Incubation: 27 to 31 days
Size at hatching: 2.5 to 3.2 ounces (73 to 90 grams)
Age of maturity:
3 to 5 years
Conservation status: Andean flamingo is vulnerable
The flamingo’s pink color, which
is very important for stimulating reproduction, comes from the
food they eat, including algae, diatoms, and small aquatic insects
Flamingos like company! In East Africa, more than one million lesser flamingos may gather together—forming the largest flocks known among birds today.
Standing on one leg really is their most comfortable resting position.
The Andean flamingo is the only flamingo species with yellow legs.
The San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park are among only a handful of zoos in the world to raise offspring from four of the six flamingo species. Together, we have hatched nearly 300 chicks.
Think pink—and orange?
With their bright feathers and strongly hooked bills, flamingos are among the most easily recognized waterbirds. Their pink or reddish color comes from the rich sources of carotenoid pigments (like the pigments of carrots) in the algae and small crustaceans that the birds eat. The Caribbean flamingos Phoenicopterus ruber ruber are the brightest, showing their true colors of red, pink, or orange on their legs, bills, and faces.
Food for thought
Long legs let flamingos wade into deeper water than most other birds to look for food. And speaking of food, the flamingo also has very distinctive eating habits. The bill is held upside down in the water. The flamingo feeds by sucking water and mud in at the front of its bill and then pumping it out again at the sides. Here, briny plates called lamellae act like tiny filters, trapping shrimp and other small water creatures for the flamingo to eat. The smaller puna Phoenicopparrus jamesi, Andean Phoenicopparrus andinus, and lesser flamingos Phoeniconaias minor have deeper bills and stiff lamellae. This helps them filter very fine particles, such as algae, through their bill and keep bigger particles out. Caribbean, greater Phoenicopterus ruber, and Chilean flamingos Phoenicopterus chilensis are larger and feed mostly on invertebrates such as brine flies, shrimps, and mollusks. They get these food items from the bottom mud by wading in shallow water. Sometimes they swim to get their food, and sometimes by “upending” (tail feathers in the air, head underwater) like ducks.
At the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, the flamingos are fed a special pellet diet that is made for flamingos. This food has all the nutrients the flamingos need, and even a pigment that helps keep their beautiful color. And to allow the flamingos to eat in their normal way (taking in water and then pumping it back out), a water source just for feeding is near their food so they can get a beakful of water and then food—just like they would in the wild.
The more the merrier
Flamingos are social birds that like to live in groups of varying sizes, from a few pair to sometimes thousands or tens of thousands. Their numbers add to the impressiveness of ritualized flamingo displays:
Head-flagging— Stretching the neck with head up high and rhythmically turning the head from side to side.
Wing salute— Showing off the contrasting colors with the tail cocked and the neck outstretched.
Twist-preen— The bird twists its neck back and appears to preen its feathers with its bill quickly.
Marching— The large, tightly packed flock walks together as one, before switching direction abruptly.
Up, up, and away
In order to fly, flamingos need to run a few paces to gather speed. This speed is not related to the ground but rather to the air, so they usually take off facing into the wind. In flight, flamingos are quite distinctive, with their long necks stretched out in front and the equally long legs trailing behind. Their outstretched wings showcase the pretty black and red (or pink) coloration that, with slight variations, is shared by all flamingo species. When flying, flamingos flap their wings fairly rapidly and almost continuously. And, as with most other flamingo activities, they usually fly together in large flocks. The flamingos follow each other closely, using a variety of formations that help them take advantage of the wind patterns.
Home is where the mud is
A flamingo nest is not fancy, just a mound of mud, maybe 12 inches (30 centimeters) high. The nest needs to be high enough to protect the egg from flooding and from the occasional intense heat at ground level. Both the male and female build the nest by drawing mud toward their feet with their bills. Flamingos lay a single large egg, which is incubated by both parents. At hatching, a flamingo chick has gray down feathers. It also has a straight, pink bill and swollen pink legs, both of which turn black within a week.
After hatching, the chick stays in the nest for 5 to 12 days. During this time, the chick is fed a type of “milk” called crop milk that comes from the parents’ upper digestive tract. (Flamingos share this trait with pigeons.) Both males and females can feed the chick this way, and even flamingos that are not the parents can act as foster-feeders. The begging calls the hungry chick makes are believed to stimulate the secretion of the milk.
A place all their own
Once the young birds leave the nest, they herd together in large groups called creches and can run and swim well at an early age. Adult flamingos have few natural predators. That's because flamingos tend to live in inhospitable places where the lagoons are pretty bare of vegetation, so few other birds or animals come there.