Eight kinds of flamingos make up the avian
family Phoenicopteridae. Flamingos are beautiful
water birds with long legs and luxuriant deep
red, light red, pink, or white plumage. They inhabit
Europe, Africa, Asia, South America and the
West Indies. European flamingos migrate to Africa
in the winter.
The birds usually live in tropical and temperate
regions along oceans and lakes or in marshes. Flamingos
are also found in the Andes mountains. It
is thought that flamingos are pink to red because
they eat varied amounts of blue-green algae and
other organisms, which contain the substances
that make carrots orange and tomatoes red. Flamingos
also eat diatoms, shrimp, and small mollusks.
There are four flamingo (Phoenicoparrus) species:
the American and Caribbean, the Andean,
the James', and the lesser flamingos. Several
Phoenicoparrus species have subspecies. For example,
American and Caribbean flamingos
(Phoenicopterus ruber) have three subspecies:
greater (P. ruber roseus), Chilean (P. ruber chilensis),
GalГЎpagos (P. ruber ruber) flamingos. Regrettably,
few of these birds are seen in the United States, as
feather hunters made them almost extinct.AChilean
flamingo is a bit smaller than a greater flamingo.
It is pink, with red streaks on its back, and
nests in Andean mountain lakes and southern
South American lowlands. Two smaller species,
are the Andean (Phoenicoparrus andinus) and
James' flamingo (Phoenicoparrus jamesi). The
smallest, most abundant species, numbering in
the millions, is the lesser flamingo (Phoeniconaias
minor) of Africa and India. It has a subspecies
(Phoeniconaias minor jamesi).
Physical Characteristics of Flamingos
All flamingos have very long legs, webbed feet, and long, flexible necks. The long legs and webbed feet allow them to wade into fairly deep waters and stir up the muddy bottoms of lagoons and lakes, causing food to rise up closer to them. Their bills bend sharply about halfway from their ends. The upper mandible (beak half) is narrow and, when closed, fits tightly into the lower mandible. To feed, flamingos dip their heads into water upside down and scoop backward, taking in food-containing water. Then they press their mandibles together and push their tongues upward. As mandible edges have small ridges, the tongue pressure pushes water out and the strainerlike action retains the small animals and vegetation they feed on. Different species and subspecies are colored differently and have different sizes. Overall, adult flamingos attain heights and weights of 2.5 to 5.5 feet and weigh four to seven pounds, depending on species. Females are usually shorter and weigh less than males. Flamingo plumage is white, various pinks, or crimson red. Their legs, webbed feet, bills, and faces are red, pink, orange, or yellow.
The Flamingo Life Cycle
Most flamingos live in colonies which number tens to hundreds of thousands. The colonies are usually located in or around lagoons and lakes. A well-known, very populous example is Kenya's Lake Nakuru, where millions of flamingos congregate. During breeding season, a male and female mate. It is believed that once mated, pairs of flamingos are monogamous. The female lays one 3.5-ounce white egg in a depression atop a nest which is a conicalmoundof mud, one foot tall, built by the breeding pair. The pair then incubate the egg for about a month, until it hatches.Onhatching, the baby flamingo stays in the nest for about three months. At first, it has gray, downy feathers and its legs and bill are pink. Its feathers turn pink and its bill curves into the adult shape as it grows. Both parents feed the young bird. It is given regurgitated food for as long as it remains in the nest, though it can feed itself thirty days after hatching. In the wild, flamingos may live for forty to fifty years.
Flamingos live in isolated habitats and have few natural predators except for humans. In the distant past, the ancient Romans hunted flamingos for their tasty tongues, thought to be a gastronomic delicacy. Regrettably, the American greater flamingo (P. ruber roseus), once common in the South, isnowseen only rarely in the United States. They were hunted for their beautiful plumage faster than they could reproduce. This is unfortunate, because few sights are more beautiful than a flock of pink, rose, or scarlet flamingos standing together or flying in the sun of the United States tropics. They are still plentiful in the West Indies and South America. It might be thought advantageous to restock the wild with zoo-bred flamingos. However, this has not been possible because flamingos captured for zoos often die in transit, and those in zoos rarely breed successfully. It is hoped that with time and with the cessation of feather hunting, flamingos will reestablish themselves in the United States. A great threat to this prospect, and to flamingos elsewhere, is pollution and destruction of their habitats.
Family: Phoenicopteridae (flamingos, three genera, seven species)
Geographical location: Europe, Africa, Asia, South America, the West Indies Habitat: Lagoons, lakes, and marshes
Gestational period: One month of incubation
Life span: Forty to fifty years in the wild
Special anatomy: Long, storklike legs; bills that strain shellfish and other food out of water
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