Flamingo Fast Facts

Introduction

Flamingos belong to order Phoenicopteriformes and family Phoenicopteridae. There are six different kinds of flamingos: greater (Phoenicopterus roseus), lesser (P. minor), Caribbean (P. ruber), Chilean (P. chilensis), Andean (P. andinus), and James’s flamingos (P. jamesi). The greater or American flamingo has the widest distribution (Fig 1), however the Chilean flamingo is the most numerous and widespread of the South American species.

Free-ranging American flamingos.

Figure 1. Free-ranging American flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber). Photo credit: Adam Baker. [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/ licenses/by/2.0/] via Flickr Creative Commons. Click image to enlarge.

Flamingos live in large colonies and are adapted for survival in extreme habitats.

Explore LafeberVet’s collection of fascinating flamingo facts below:

1. Flamingos in history

Egyptians used flamingo as a hieroglyphic symbol to indicate the color red. The flamingo was also considered the embodiment of the sun-god Ra.

The Romans believed the flamingo tongue to be an exquisite delicacy.

2. Flamingos are filter feeders

Flamingos primarily feed on small invertebrates using a “reverse design” bill. The upper bill or rhinotheca acts as a ‘lid’ to a large, trough-like lower bill or gnathotheca. (Fig 2). A nasofrontal hinge articulates with the mandible to increases gape.

The large, trough-like, lower bill of the flamingo is used to scoop.

Figure 2. The large, trough-like, lower bill of the flamingo is used to scoop. Photo credit: Robert Claypool [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/ licenses/by/2.0/] via Flickr Creative Commons. Click image to enlarge.

The flamingo uses its unique bill to perform a characteristic foraging behavior. The bill is held upside-down under water, making it easier to scoop organic matter (Fig 3). A system of horny plates along the sides of both the upper and lower bill then screen food particles from the water much like the baleen of the whale. The large, fleshy tongue acts like a piston, forcing mud and water past this filtering device and trapping food items within the internal horn lamellae of the bill (Wyss 2014).

Flamingo bill upside down

Figure 3. While foraging, the flamingo bill is held upside-down under water to scoop organic matter. Photo credit: Mike Fisher. [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/ licenses/by/2.0/] via Wikimedia Commons.Click image to enlarge.

3. The pink color of adult birds comes from carotenoid pigments

Juvenile flamingos are gray-brown, and the characteristic pink color of adult flamingo plumage is not achieved until 4 to 6 years of age. This pink color comes from carotenoid pigments, such as canthaxanthin, astaxanthin, and phoenicoxanthin, which are acquired through feeding on algae, fungi, and bacteria (Wyss 2014). Carotenoid pigments are also excreted by the flamingo’s uropygial gland and applied during preening (Amat 2011).

Canthoxanthins, a type of carotenoid pigment, are also present in the secretions of the esophageal mucus glands present in the greater flamingo. This red, nutritive fluid is regurgitated and fed to the young by both parent birds (King 1984).

There are commercially available diets that include canthaxanthin. Floating pellets, are often preferred as they that promote normal foraging behavior. Duckweed can also be offered as a supplement, since it contains a variety of natural carotenoids (Fig 4).

Flamingo in duckweed-infested lagoon

Figure 4. Flamingo in duckweed-infested lagoon. Photo credit: Evelyn Simak [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)] via Wikimedia Commons from geograph.org.uk. Click image to enlarge.

4. Clinical problems of captive flamingos

Bumblefoot or pododermatitis is very common in captive flamingos (Fig 5). Lesions frequently include hyperkeratosis, papillomatous growths, and/or fissures and a novel Dermatophilus-like bacterium, Arsenicicoccus dermatophilus, has been found to invade the cornified epidermis of juvenile flamingos (Wyss 2014, Gobeli 2013). The incidence of foot lesions increases in birds housed in cold climates (<15°C or 59°F) and/or hard substrate like concrete, vinyl, rubber lining, or even grass. Pododermatitis is much less common in birds housed in enclosures with ponds lined by natural substrates such as fine sand (Nielson 2012).

Pododermatitis is a common problem in the captive flamingo.

Figure 5. Pododermatitis is a common problem in the captive flamingo. Photo credit: Christal Pollock, DVM. Click image to enlarge.

Flamingos are also prone to capture myopathy. Affected birds often die secondary to massive myoglobinuric tubulonephrosis and renal failure. Since treatment is difficult, prevention is key. Plan all capture and restraint procedures in advance to prevent the birds from running. While restraining individual birds, do not fold the legs under the body (Wyss 2014, Paterson 2007).

There is also a case report of bill impaction in a group of captive Caribbean flamingos. The flamingo bill is adapted for suction, filtration, and ejection of fluid medium, and flamingos ingest larger food items only rarely. The birds in this case report were house in a mixed aviary with access to minced meat. Bill impaction may be visible from a distance because backward displacement of the tongue can give the throat region a thickened appearance (Wyss 2014, Hammer 2007).

Other conditions reported in captive birds include traumatic fractures or luxations, soft tissue injury, limb deformities, poxvirus, aspergillosis, and atherosclerosis. West Nile virus has also been isolated from a dead Chilean flamingo (Wyss 2014, Steele 2000).

5. Flamingo life stages

Most flamingos begin mating at approximately 6 years of age although successful breeding does not occur until 7 to 8 years. Flamingo flocks synchronize time of nesting so young birds can grow up together to form large groups. Only one egg is laid, and both male and female birds take turns incubating the egg for 28 to 30 days (Fig 6). These precocial chicks possess pink or red legs and the bills turn black within the first week of life. Chicks fledge at 2 to 3 months of age (Wyss 2014).

Both parent birds take turns incubating the flamingo egg.

Figure 6. Both parent birds take turns incubating the flamingo egg. Photo credit: Jason Kaechler [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/ licenses/by/2.0/] via Flickr Creative Commons. Click image to enlarge.

In captivity, flamingos are fairly long-lived birds. The reported lifespan of the Chilean flamingo is approximately 25 to 60 years.

In captivity, flamingos are fairly long-lived birds. The reported lifespan of the Chilean flamingo ranges from 25 to 60 years.

References