Classification and Range
Flamingos belong to one of the oldest bird families dating back 30 million years in their present day forms. There is continued controversy over their classification, but many researchers list flamingos in their own order, Phoenicopteriformes and in the family Phoenicopteridae. There are six species of flamingos: Greater flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus), Caribbean flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber), Chilean flamingo (Phoenicopterus chilensis), Lesser flamingo (Phoeniconaias minor), Andean flamingo (Phoenicoparrus andinus) and the Puna or James' flamingo (Phoenicoparrus jamesi).
Other researchers include flamingos in one of many different orders, based on anatomical or behavioral comparisons, fossil evidence or DNA. For example, some consider flamingos related to the storks and herons of the order Ciconiiformes, while some name them as a family related to waders and stilts within the order Charadriiformes. Others claim flamingos are related to the stork, ibis, pelican and New World vulture, while others group them with the family of geese in the order Anseriformes.
Flamingos have widespread ranges within South America, the Caribbean, Africa, and parts of southern Europe and southern Asia. Chilean flamingos, along with the Andean and James' or Puna flamingos, have an extensive range throughout much of southern South America in Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay.
Flamingos live in wetlands that may be very saline, alkaline or even fresh water. Chilean flamingos range from lowlands to high altitudes, along the coast or far inland and with great temperature variations.
Chilean flamingos are extremely hardy birds. They regularly live in lakes at altitudes up to 15,420 feet (4,700 meters), as well as at sea level. Chilean flamingos also withstand Altiplano (high plain) winter nights as cold as -22° F (-30° C) around hot springs, which prevent water from freezing. These lakes are usually inhospitable to all living creatures except for algae, diatoms, aquatic invertebrates and of course, the flamingos. If lakes in the Altiplano have fish, they usually have very few flamingos. The lakes, lagoons or coastal estuaries must be large and shallow to support very large populations of flamingo and their feeding habits.
The six species vary greatly in size, from 31 – 55 inches (79 – 140 cm) in height, with wingspans from 39 – 63 inches (1 – 1.6 m) wide.
Adult weight: Male - 6.6 pounds (3 kg) and females 5.5 pounds (2.5 kg)
Adult Height: stands 40 – 42 inches tall (100 – 105 cm).
Certain pigments found in their food provide the familiar and characteristic coloration on the feathers, legs and beak. While all flamingos have black flight feathers, they vary in length and placement. Chilean flamingos have more black on the end of their beaks and pale, yellowish-gray legs with red 'knees' (actually ankles) and feet.
Flamingos usually live between 20-30 years, with some wild flamingos living more than 50 years.
In the wild: minute particles of algae, diatoms (marine and freshwater algae), aquatic invertebrates, plant seeds and very small fish.
At the zoo: a commercially prepared diet that is specially formulated to provide the pigments necessary for coloration.
The chicks hatch after 27 – 31 days of incubation. The gray, downy chick stays on top of the nest between the wing and body of either parent. At birth, the chick has a straight beak. Both the female and the male feed the chick "crop milk." A gland in their upper digestive tract produces this bright red substance that is nutritionally similar to mammalian milk. Just 5 – 12 days after hatching, chicks within the colony leave their nests and form a crèche, a group of similar-aged chicks watched over by a few adults. For subsequent feedings, parents locate their offspring in the crèche through voice recognition. At 10 – 12 weeks of age, the chick's formerly straight beak develops the characteristic flamingo downturn and can effectively filter food. At 6 – 10 months of age, juveniles develop regular feathers that lack the distinctive pigmentation. At 1 year old or younger, juveniles can acquire extensive pink feathering that may be mixed with gray-brown contour feathers. Juveniles usually have full pink feathering by 2 – 3 years of age. Juveniles reach sexual maturity and can successfully breed between 3 – 5 years old.
All species of flamingos are highly gregarious and live in colonies. Their entire reproductive cycle occurs within a large flock, often consisting of thousands of individuals. In tropical or subtropical climates, flamingos may breed any time of year. Flamingos that live in temperate climates with distinct seasons breed in springtime. For the Chilean flamingo, this means that breeding on the Altiplano begins in November (seasons are reversed for regions south of the Equator). Since limited information exists about their breeding habits, it is thought that flamingos are monogamous and form strong pair bonds that may last for multiple years. However, some males can be polygamous and will attempt to breed with multiple females.
For months preceding and following breeding, flamingos perform ritualized group displays accompanied by noisy vocalizations that include growling and grunting. These displays include "head-flagging," where the out-stretched head is rhythmically turned back and forth; the "wing-salute," with wings held open and tail and head erect; the "twist-preen;" "wing-leg stretch" and marching in sequence and unison. Researchers believe that the purpose of these displays is to stimulate hormones and synchronize breeding attempts within the colony.
Flamingos prefer to nest when the water level is high enough and will provide sufficient food and protection from predators, but they will still mate if conditions are not ideal. Both male and female participate in building the nest, usually on mud or salt flats. The mud nest is typically cone-shaped with a trench or a moat excavated around the base. The female lays her single large white egg in a shallow depression on top of the nest. The nest may be quite large, from 12 – 18 inches (30 – 46 cm) tall and 12 – 24 inches (30 – 61 cm) wide at the bottom. If the nest survives the weather, the pair may re-use it in subsequent years and will refresh or rebuild the nest if necessary. If there are no mudflats upon which to build a nest, Chilean flamingos lay their eggs on bare ground. Breeding colonies consist of dozens, if not thousands of flamingo pairs. Male and female share the duty of incubation.
Friends of a Feather Flock Together
Flamingos rarely live outside of a large colony. Chilean flamingos commonly live with Andean and James' or Puna flamingos, much like the combined flocks of Greater and Lesser flamingos in East Africa. These highly social birds require a species-specific colony size of at least dozens of individuals. However, the size of a combined species varies, from 10,000 to more than a million birds. Compared to the Andean and James' or Puna flamingos, Chilean flamingos have slightly different beak structures. This allows them to feed on different types and sizes of food at greater depths. The Andean and James' or Puna flamingos feed at the surface. Thus, the different species of flamingos within a combined flock do not compete for food resources and this large colony provides security from predators.
In addition to feeding together, flamingos usually take flight together in lines or "V" formations. Unlike some water birds (such as ducks), flamingos cannot simply begin flying from a standstill. Instead, they must run extensive distances to build up sufficient speed and lift before they can take off. Once airborne, their flight speed can reach 37 mph (60 kmh). Even though they fly together, flamingos follow no strict migration patterns. Instead, according to climate and water conditions, they may widely disperse. For example, Chilean flamingos travel from the Andean Altiplano down to coastal regions and to the southern tip of Argentina. Flamingos rest or sleep in a one-legged stance facing into the wind, usually all together.
Pretty in Pink
Flamingos have highly recognizable physical features with their long legs, long necks, distinctive bill shape and coloration. Relative to the body size of most birds, flamingos have the longest legs and necks. This allows them to wade in deeper waters and reach deeper for food. They also have webbed front toes to provide stability when walking in mud and to help with swimming.
The unique bills of flamingos allow them to filter the water for food much like baleen whales. Hairy, comb-like structures line their beaks and the tongue pumps water through these structures. This process strains the water and traps tiny food particles. The characteristic downturn in the bill keeps an even filtering gap between the upper and lower mandible, from the base to the tip. This narrow opening also prevents the entry of particles that are too large. Standing in water, a flamingo uses its long legs to stir up the mud, while holding its head upside down to scoop up water and food.
Location at the Zoo
Chilean flamingos are on exhibit in the Temperate Forest. They share their exhibit with the Coscoroba swans and the southern pudu (small deer). The Temperate Forest also includes the Family Farm, Bug World, Wetlands and Asian cranes. Other birds on exhibit in the Temperate Forest include: various pheasant species, curassows and trumpeters from South America, and several softbills (jays, laughing thrushes, turacos, whistling thrushes, birds of paradise and mynahs).
TAlthough they have an estimated population of no more than 200,000, Chilean flamingos are not an endangered species. Other flamingo populations are not so fortunate. Andean flamingos have less than 50,000 individuals, and Puna or James' flamingos number less than 100,000. Since the 1970s, most flamingo populations in South America have declined sharply. Human activity causes the most serious problems for flamingos, due to lithium mining, water diversion, egg harvesting, agriculture, industrial projects, tourism-related disturbances and fish introduction into lakes. Other birds and some mammals eat the eggs and chicks.
However, there is hope for these beautiful birds. There are many reasons why flamingos should be considered a flagship species for wetland conservation. First, they are charismatic and easily recognized. Second, as local conditions change throughout the year, they use wetland resources extensively, moving from one wetland to another. Lastly, flamingos use coastal estuaries for wintering habitat – these are particularly important and productive wetlands. For information on the Flamingo Research and Conservation in the Americas project: http://cbc.amnh.org/center/programs/birds-flamingos.html.
How You Can Help!
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Sources and Suggested Reading
Arengo, Felicity. "Flamingo Research and Conservation in the Americas."
BirdLife International (2007) Species factsheet: Phoenicopterus chilensis. Accessed January 9, 2008 at http://www.birdlife.org.
del Hoyo, J., Elliot, A. & Sargatal, J. eds. 1992. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 1. Ostrich to Ducks. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain. 589 p.