A Flurry of Flamingos
April 6, 2007
Almost every zoo I visit features a colony of flamingos crowding in and around a
shallow pond situated near the front entrance. Perhaps the zoo wants to impress
visitors right away with the wonders of the animal world: These large, alien-looking,
and noisy birds are always fun to watch. They are in constant motion (especially
when a keeper is present with a bucket of treats, as in the first photo), and
their vocalizing, postures, and movements are a steady source of fascination.
Or perhaps the zoo is just suggesting that all their animals are in the pink of health.
There are several species of flamingos, of which the Greater flamingo
(Phoenicopterus ruber) is shown here. Most species are some shade of
pinky-orange, an effect of the carotene in their food (diatoms, seeds,
blue-green algae, crustaceans, and mollusks). Flamingos live in large groups
in areas with lots of water and mud. Males and females build their nests
together; she lays one large egg; and mom and dad take turns feeding
and tending the new-born chick.
The first photo shows the beautiful darker red coloration under the flamingo’s
open wing. It must be wondrous to see them in flight. Apparently, some species
prefer to migrate by night. Of course, captive flamingos (like most birds) generally
have their wings clipped to prevent them from escaping. I felt much better about
this when I learned that what is cut is only flight feathers. It hurts the bird no
more than it hurts you to trim your fingernails.
Flamingos have a curious feeding behavior: They bend their long necks down,
duck their heads upside down, swish their oddly-shaped beaks back and
forth in the water, and filter food through special structures in their beaks
and mouths. One wonders how they avoid getting water up their noses, but
millions of years of practice appear to have paid off.