James’ flamingos in Salar Uyuni, Bolivia. Photo: Christian-Mehlfuhrer.
Flamingos belong to the Phoenicopteridae family.
Flamingos’ closest relatives are the grebes. Likewise, flamingos and grebes are more closely related to pigeons and doves than to other water birds of similar appearance.
The biggest threats are the loss of habitat due to pollution, egg collection, and also climate change.
The six species of flamingos are found in the Americas, Africa, Asia and Europe.
They feed on very small invertebrates and algae suspended in water and mud.
They inhabit shallow bodies of water, usually saline, brackish or alkaline in areas ranging from sea level to 5,000 m.
Table of Content
The meaning of the scientific name of flamingos refers to the color red or pink. Flamingos are grouped into three genera that are Phoenicopterus, Phoenicoparrus, and Phoeniconaias. Phoeni in Greek means red feathers.
The name “flamingo” would come from the direct translation of Portuguese or Spanish. Flame means fire, which applied to a bird of pink and magenta colors would mean “bird of flame or fire color”.
Alternatively, it could have come from the Provencal language (southern France) that would mean “flame”, which might have been influenced by the Germanic language through suffixes, resulting in “fleming” or “flamengo” (Harper, 2019).
Parihuana: in the Andes of South America
Parihuana is a common name with which flamingos are known in the Andes of South America. The words comes from the Quechua language.
Another name is “parina” from the Aymara language with multiple variants including “pariguana” in Bolivia and Peru, “paruela” and “pariona” in the central-southern Andean region of Peru (Cerrón-Palomino, 2004).
Names for each species of flamingo are used by local people in the high Andes of the Atacama region in Chile and Bolivia. These include “Guaichete” for the Chilean Flamingo, “Tococo” for the Andean Flamingo, and “Chururu” for James’ Flamingo. The name “Jetete” is used for immature individuals, apparently of all species, that lack the typical pink coloration (Johnson et al. 1957).
The first genetic studies on the taxonomy of flamingos (Sibley et al. 1969, Salzman, 1993) suggest a genetic affinity with storks and herons as well as with ibices and spoonbills. Other studies (Johnson et al. 2006) suggest that flamingos are also distant relatives of ducks and geese based on the fact that they share the same parasites (lice) found exclusively in these groups of birds. Parasites are frequently used as indicators of taxonomic affinity.
This classification lasted for a long time until genetic studies with more advanced techniques unexpectedly found that the closest relatives to the flamingos are the grebes.
As if this finding was enough of a surprise, the study suggested that the flamingos and grebes are more closely related to pigeons and doves. These findings also imply that the flamingos and grebes are not closely related to other birds that use aquatic habitats (Jarvis et al. 2014)
Morphological traits shared by flamingos and grebes corroborate the findings of the genetic study (Chubb, 2004; Ericson et al. 2006).
Origin of the Flamingos
A recent publication by Hood and collaborators of 2019, identifies the “square bone” (the bone that connects the jaw with the skull) in a fossil about 55 million years old found in Asia. The shape of this bone has important implications.
The “square bone” is found only in flamingos and grebes.
The fossil found in Asia represents the oldest known record of a lineage of flamingos suggesting that the ancestors of modern flamingos and grebes may have appeared for the first time in Asia before spreading through the rest of the northern hemisphere and then moving to southern hemisphere much later.
Are all species of Flamingos very similar?
They have an overall similar color patters. However, they can be separated into two groups: species with a shallow keel and species with a deep keel.
Shallow-keel flamingos belong to the genus Phoenicopterus. They have the upper jaw as wide as the width of the lower jaw.
The deep-keel flamingos belong to the genus Phoeniconaias and Phoenicoparrus. They have the upper jaw much narrower than the maxilla or lower jaw as shown in the photo.
All flamingos belong to the family Phoenicopteridae and occupy a highly specialized ecological niche.
A study that used mitochondrial markers (mtDNA) (Torres 2014) confirms that all modern flamingos split from a single precursor species of flamingos. This study also re-affirmed that all flamingos belong in a single-family (Phoenicopteridae), and there is more.
The shallow and deep-keel groups are well established and flamingos, as a family, are more closely related to the grebes than to any other group of birds.
Modern flamingos probably originated in the New World with each subclade scattering across the Atlantic to the south. The study also estimated that the time of divergence places flamingos among one of the youngest families of birds, against the classical notion that flamingos would be one of the oldest families based on biogeography and fossil record.
Flamingos of the Americas
Andean Flamingo (Phoenicoparrus andinus)
It is the largest and tallest flamingo. The body is pale pink with parts of the chest and wing coverts red-scarlet. The bill is bi-color with a yellowish base and black lower half. The legs are yellowish.
Height: 100 a 140 cm (3.25 – 4.60 ft).
Weight: 4 kg (8.8 lb).
Distribution: Southern Andes of Peru, Chile, and Argentina at elevations of 2,700-3,400. Rare on the coast of Peru, southern Brazil, and Argentina.
James’ Flamingo (Phoenicoparrus jamesi)
It is the smallest of the Andean flamingos. Its plumage is pink with crimson-red feathers on the back and base of the neck. The flight feathers are black. The legs are red.
Height: 90–92 cm (2.95–3.02 ft).
Weight: 2 kg (4.4 lb).
Distribution: High Andean plateaus of southern Peru, northeastern Chile, western Bolivia, and northwestern Argentina, where it also breeds.
Chilean Flamingo (Phoenicopterus chilensis)
Photo: Evelyn Tavera.
The plumage is pinker than in European flamingo, but much less than in the American flamenco. It can be distinguished from these species by their grayish legs with red joints or knees. More than half of the beak is black and the eye is pale.
Height: 95-105 cm (37-41 Inches).
Weight: 2.5-3.5 kg (5.5-7.7 lb).
Distribution: Andes of Ecuador, Peru, Chile, and Argentina at elevations of 2700 3400. Also, in eastern Brazil.
American Flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber)
Photos: GTM Nerr/Flickr/CC by 2.0
It is mostly of salmon color. The wing coverts are brighter red with the flight feathers black. The bill is pink and white with an extensive black tip. The legs are completely red.
Height: 120 a 145 cm (47 a 57 inches).
Weight: Machos: 2.8 kg (6.2 lb), Hembras: 2.2 kg (4.9 lb)
Distribution: Colombia, Venezuela, Caribbean Islands, northern Brazil, the northern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, and southern Florida in the USA.
Flamingos of Africa and Europe
African Flamingo (Phoeniconaias minor)
Photo: Angel Williams.
It is the smallest of the old-world flamingos. Most of its plumage is white-pink. The legs are red. The bill is totally black or reddish black. It may be found in the same habitat as the European flamingo.
Height: 80 a 90 cm (31 a 35 inches).
Weight: 1.2 a 2.7 kg (2.6 a 6.0 lb).
Distribution: Mostly in Africa, Southeast Asia, and northeast India.
European or Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus)
Photo: Sergey Yeliseev.
Pale pink with brighter pink or reddish wing coverts. The primary wing feathers are black. The beak is pink with a black tip. The legs are completely pink.
Altura: 110-150 cm (43-59 inches)
Wieght: 2-4 kg (4.4-8.8 lb).
Distribution: Coastal and wetland areas in Africa, southern Asia, the Middle East, and southern Europe.
Behavior and Ecology
Habitat and Movements
Flamingos generally forage and breed in fresh or brackish shallow bodies of water. They can also use bodies of water as deep as the length of their legs.
The high Andean flamingos are mostly restricted to lagoons and alkaline bodies of water between 2400 and 4500 m, but also down to bodies of water located at sea level.
Flamingos are gregarious throughout the annual cycle. Many of the shallow bodies of water are ephemeral and contain water only for a few months in years of heavy rain. Thus, flamingos are nomads by nature always looking for the best habitats to feed and breed.
Flamingos are loud especially when they are in flocks. However, the repertoire of their vocalizations is limited to calls and short grunts of nasal quality.
Flamenco Andino, bandada
Flamenco Andino un individuo
Flamenco de James
Flamingos feed on insect larvae, algae, and a great variety of invertebrates that are obtained by filtration. The flamingos’ beak is equipped with tiny layers called lamellae and bristles in the interior of the upper and lower jaws. They also have a fleshy tongue with filaments that function as a piston.
Flamingos use their tongue to suction water and expel it through the lamellae and filaments retaining the algae and invertebrates suspended in the water or mud. The feeding is done with the inverted bill.
Each species and group of species has filters adapted to consume mostly algae or invertebrates of specific sizes.
The specialized filtering structures inside a flamingos’ bill allow them to consume a wide variety of food items of different shapes and sizes. These include small crustaceans (7 x 10 mm), gastropods (3 x 12 mm), nematodes (1 x 20 mm), oligochaetes (0.8 x 35 mm), insects (0.8 x 4 mm), algae (0.03 x 0.1 mm) and small invertebrates.
Flamingos of the shallow-keel group (Phoenicopterus sp.) have structures to filter and preferably retain large items. The deep-keel flamingos (Phoeniconaias minor and Phoenicoparrus sp.) have structures to filter and retain algae and tiny invertebrates (Jenkin 1957).
Part of the bill of a flamingo (left). Crustacean Artemia salina (right) is an important food item for flamingos and is rich in carotenoids and cantazantine that contribute to fixing the pink and crimson colors on a flamingo’s plumage.
Diet and Plumage Color
The brightness of the pink, reddish or crimson colors in flamingos come from the carotenoids content in invertebrates they consume. The liver enzymes break down the carotenes which are fixed in the plumage of the bird.
Seasonal changes in the enzymatic content, feeding, and increment of carotenoids result in more intense and bright colors during the reproductive season, which gives an idea of the state of health and age necessary to attract the opposite sex.
The availability of foods high in carotenoids is also reflected in the plumage of flamingos. For example, the high beta-carotene content in the diet of American flamingos is reflected in the brightest red color. On the other hand, the lack of abundant beta-carotenes in the food of African flamingos results in them being of a paler pink color (Amat et al. 2011).
Flamingos forage, migrate, and breed in flocks. In the case of the South American flamingos, an annual cycle includes periods of pair formation, construction of the nest, mating, laying and incubation of the eggs, and hatching and the caring for the chicks as they move about in groups.
The breeding periods of flamingos in the genus Phoenicoparrus sp. are very synchronized. Breeding generally begins in August and ends in May, and last approximately three months. The Chilean flamingo (genus Phoenicopterus), has a somewhat similar breeding chronology as the other two smaller flamingos (Rodríguez, 2005).
Flamingos exhibit a communal reproductive courtship, which is believed to encourage the pair formation and initiation of the breeding season in a synchronized manner. The communal courtship display consists of the formation of groups of 40 to 60 individuals that march in a synchronized manner moving their heads from side to side.
The formation of a marching group starts with some individuals congregating to make specific movements such as scratching their backs with their beaks, opening and closing their wings, stretching their neck and moving their heads side to side. Other individuals, females, and males join in the group or leave. If the group reaches a minimum size, it begins to move in one direction. It is unclear if there is a leadership upon which other birds follow.
Many attempts to form a marching group fail and only a few culminate in a group that marches together.
Andean flamingos engaged in a courtship display event. This event is intended for males and females to meet and form breeding pairs.
Nest Building and Mating
During and after the courtship period pairs are formed and begin to look for a suitable place to start the construction of the nest. Members of the colony choose a place that meets the conditions to establish a nesting colony. Each pair then chooses a spot to begin the construction of the nest, which consists of a mound of mud with a shallow cup on the top (Studer-Thiersch, 1975).
Flamingos form pairs for each breeding season and are believed to be monogamous. At least the pairs of flamingos in captivity remain together.
However, it is not clear if pairs in the wild maintain the same partner over the years. If the purpose of marching courtship display is to choose a breeding partner then flamingos may not breed with the same female every year. This remains unclear.
During the construction of the nest, the pair copulates multiple times mostly when the female is sitting on the nest. The nests are built at a minimum distance from other nests and each pair defends the space around their nest. Once the nest is built and the top cup begins to dry, the female lays a single egg that is incubated by both the female and the male.
Incubation and Care of the Young
Both the male and female incubate the egg for a period of 27 to 31 days. The chick hatches with a down plumage similar to that of a duck or chicken chick. The color of the down varies from gray to white depending on the species.
The chick remains in the nest for 7 to 12 days after which it begins to explore the surroundings of the nest. The two parents feed the chick with red milk produced by special glands in the stomach of the adults. The milk produced is very rich.
The flamingo milk is composed of fat, protein, and some blood of the adults. Milk production is one of the similarities that flamingos share with pigeons, which also produces milk to feed their chicks.
After about two weeks of age, the chicks begin to form small groups usually close to their nests. As they grow and are able to mobilize more, they begin to form larger groups that move together.
These groups are known as nurseries and sometimes congregate all the chicks of the colony when it is a small breeding colony. Parents continue to feed the chicks with milk.
At approximately three months of age, the chicks have the juvenile plumage. The bill has grown to the shape of the adult and has developed the internal membranes and filaments that allow them to start filtering their own food. Once the chicks are able to fly, they will follow the adults to other feeding grounds or migrate to other regions (Shannon, 2000).
Flamingo nests with only one egg (left). Chicks of approximately one and a half months old (right).
The main threats to flamingos are the loss of habitat due to pollution and degradation of bodies of water that serve them as habitat. Egg collection is a problem in certain parts of their range.
The fact that flamingos live in large flocks makes them vulnerable to rapidly proliferating diseases.
A growing threat is climate change that could result in periods of extreme drought and abundance of water without creating adequate conditions for proper feeding and breeding.
The conservation status of flamingos is as follows:
- The Andean flamingo is categorized as a vulnerable species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The estimated population is approximately 38,600-36,700 individuals with a declining population.
- James’s flamingo is in the category of near threatened with an estimated population of 106,000 – 107,000 individuals and a stable population trend.
- The Chilean flamingo is in the category of near threatened with an estimated population of 290,000 individuals. The populations of the Chilean flamingo are also in decline.
- The American flamingo is in the category of low concern with an approximate global population of 220,000 and 320,000 individuals. The populations of the American flamingo appear to be increasing.
- The European flamingo is in the category of low concern with an approximate global population of 545,000 to 680,000 individuals. The populations of the European flamingo appear to be increasing.
- The African flamenco is abundant with a global population of approximately 2 and 3 million individuals. However, the IUCN considers this flamenco to be near threatened with a declining population trend (Hughes, 2014).
All species of flamingos are represented in the form of small breeding flocks in zoos in various parts of the world.
The symbolism of the Flamingos
Perhaps due to their pink-crimson plumage and peculiar appearance, flamingos are easy to recognize. Their long legs and necks and sluggish movement when they walk, and even when they fly, give flamingos an air of calm and collected birds that convey good vibes. Flamingos are one of the most recognizable birds by most cultures.
The American flamingo is considered a symbol of the Caribbean and is frequently associated with the Caribbean or tropical island lifestyle. For example, hotels and resorts keep flamingos in their facilities and sometimes allow tourists to feed and interact with them. Advertisement material shows flamingos as a symbol of the Caribbean region. The American flamingo is the national bird of the Bahamas.
Some residents in South Florida place plastic flamingos in their gardens as a symbol of the tropical Caribbean lifestyle. The symbol of the Florida state lottery system is an American flamingo.
Some pre-Columbian cultures such as the Moche in Peru depicted figures of flamingos in their ceramic works. In the Andes of Peru, flamingos are hunted for medicinal uses since it is believed that flamingo fat cures tuberculosis or perhaps silicosis (Johnson and Cézilly, 1975).
In parts of the southern Andes, flamingos are considered a mystic bird thought to be the reincarnated souls of good people who passed away.
Flamingos were also considered sacred by ancient Egyptian cultures. Perhaps due to its bright pink and red colors, which resemble de color of fire, flamingos were thought to be representatives of the god sun on earth.
During the existence of the Roman Empire, the fleshy tongues of flamingos were considered highly exclusive food (Ehrlich et al. 1988).
In Europe, the oldest records of flamingos date back more than 7,000 a. P. (Bronze Age) in cave paintings found in Tajo de las Figueras, Andalucia in Spain, being the oldest record of flamingos and their relationship with humans in the Old World.
In the New World, portraits of flamingos were carved into rocks and painted in the interior of caves. Rock art portraying flamingos was found in the Atacama desert and dates from 13,000-13,410 years BC (Valenzuela et al. 2015).
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