What is the love affair we have with flamingos? These long-legged, coral-hued birds are adored all over the world, even by people who normally don’t care about birds.
Some people are ‘mingo addicts, collecting everything from toothbrushes to sheets with bright pink flamingos imprinted on them. Folks drink out of flamingo glasses, wear flamingo socks (and undies), and even plant plastic flamingos in their yards. We are smitten with these unique birds.
The name “flamingo,” meaning flame-colored, came from the Spanish. This description is quite appropriate as they are stunning. The coloration can be variations of bright fuschia fading off to a medium coral tone. On a bird sighting in Sicily, we were fortunate to see greater flamingos which were white.
I am sure you have heard the expression you are what you eat, and this goes for certain bird species also. Flamingos are pink only when they eat a diet rich in carotenoids, which are found in many of the small mollusks and crustaceans these birds feed on. The more carotenoids, the more intense their color — and vice versa.
Flamingos are found around the world. American flamingos can occasionally be seen in southern Florida but is far more common in the Caribbean islands and along the mainland coast from the Yucatan to Brazil. The Andean flamingo, which we sighted in Chile, is also found in Bolivia, Argentina and Peru. This sighting was a surprise and the flamingos were very light, almost white. Other species can be found in India, southern Europe, Africa and southwest Asia.
Visitors to Sarasota Jungle Gardens can see these magnificent birds in captivity. As many times as my grandkids have been to see them, they never tire of them and want to return again. It’s an amazing place to see quite a few creatures up close and personal (and a lot cheaper than airline tickets to Brazil or Chile).
Depending on the species, flamingos stand from 34 to 60 inches tall and weigh 3 to 9 pounds. In addition to mollusks and crustaceans, they also feed on algae and other plankton. Have you seen them eating with their head upside down or sideways? That pose allows them to use their unusual bills to filter edible material from silt and mud. Similar to other wading birds, they will stamp their feet in the muck to rustle up some grub to eat.
Flamingos need shallow waters such as mudflats, estuaries and lagoons to feed. They will try to find areas with few or no fish — less competition means more food for them. They are mainly saltwater birds, but some are also found in fresh water. Flamingos will migrate short distances to find a new food source.
Flamingos live in huge colonies to protect against predation. It works well, and these birds generally enjoy long lives. The life span in captivity is on the average of 50 years. However, out in the wild, the life expectancy is only 30 years.
The flamingo has long elegant legs. You may see one standing on one leg for long periods of time. This is an effective means to conserve heat energy in cold water. Of course, here in Florida in 90-degree weather, they still stand on one leg.
American flamingos are usually monogamous. The female will lay one white egg in a primitive mud nest. The egg and chick are attended by both parents. If there is a long rainy season, a pair may nest twice in a single year. Conversely, if the rains fail, they may not even nest at all.
Many beginning birders confuse flamingos with roseate spoonbills, but the difference is easy to spot. Take a good hard look when a pink bird flies overhead. If you see the beak that looks like your grandmother’s old wooden spoon, it’s not a flamingo.
Flamingos were once were sighted in huge numbers in southern Florida. But they were extirpated from the state in the late 1800s because their feathers (and those of other wading birds) were sought to decorate fashionable ladies’ hats.
The birds were not sighted in southern Florida for generations afterward. But in recent years, American flamingos have been spotted in the freshwater wetlands of the Everglades. Possibly they have migrated back from the Bahamas or Belize. With no one shooting them for their plumage these days, hopefully we will see these birds more often.
Abbie Banks is a member of the Venice Area Birding Association, a group of folks who want to enjoy the environment and nature without the cumbersome politics of an organized group. For more info on VABA or to be notified of upcoming birding trips, visit AbbiesWorld.org/references.html or email her at Amberina@aol.com.