You can’t ignore a creature so flamboyant
The first thing you’ll notice when you enter the Reid Park Zoo is the new Flamingo Lagoon. It’s the most recently completed habitat of the Reid Park Zoo expansion, and it’s right up front next to the carousel. There you’ll find a lovely “flamboyance” of Chilean Flamingos, numbering around 27. Something always seems to be going on with this group. You’ll see them dunking their heads in the water, flapping their wings, standing perfectly still on one leg and dozing, preening, stiffly walking through the pools or on the grass, and even sometimes marching with great precision in mini-troops.
They really are referred to as a flamboyance, a great description considering their beautiful pink, white, and black feathers, their distinctive black and white bills, their sinuous necks, their impressive (up to 5-foot) wingspans, and their long, thin legs that seem to bend the wrong way. And you’ll also hear them honking, much more quietly “gabbing,” and sometimes even the flamingo version of growling. Sometimes these sociable birds seem intensely aware of the others in the group, and sometimes an individual will sleep soundly in the midst of non-stop activity from the others.
Where they live and what they eat
Chilean Flamingos are one of the largest of the six types of flamingos, and they come to us from South America (Chile, Ecuador, Peru, Argentina, and Brazil). There are two other South American species, Andean and Puna Flamingos. You can find Greater and Lesser Flamingos in Africa, Greaters in the Middle East, and Caribbean Flamingos in Mexico, the Caribbean and just into northern South America. Of course flamingos are popular and have even been introduced into Germany and The Netherlands. And a cave painting depicting a flamingo, which is dated to about 5,000 years ago, was found in Spain!
Chilean Flamingos live in shallow water – lakes or lagoons with brackish and alkaline waters, which have two advantages. The flamingos’ preferred diet of algae, diatoms (a sort of super algae that does all kinds of good for biodiversity wherever it occurs), and small crustaceans thrive in these waters. And other animals have no interest in drinking that kind of water, so flamingos don’t have to worry about predators or even competition for their favorite foods.
Their interesting trough-shaped bills not only have dramatic black and white color on the outside, they have comb-like structures called lamellae inside. And to obtain their food, they just need to submerge their bill in the water, turn it upside down, and sweep their heads from side to side. Their muscular tongues take care of the suction needed to bring the goody-filled water into their bills, where the edible parts are trapped in the lamellae. And then the tongue obligingly expels all the extra water. These fairly light birds actually eat about 10% of their body weight in teeny-tiny bits each day!
Flamingos live in all sorts of groups – sometimes up to 30,000. But in order to breed, the size of the flamboyance must be between 15-18 birds. A pair of Chilean Flamingos mate for life, and they are definitely committed to equal opportunity parenting. First, the nest, which is really a mud mound, is constructed by both the male and female. It looks like a sort of small volcano, surrounded by a handy moat, and is about 12 inches in diameter and 15 inches high. This design is important to shield the egg from sudden flooding. The nest also has a concave top to cradle a single egg. Both parents incubate the egg for about 26 – 31 days until hatching, and often the entire flamboyance will protect it, especially from raptors in the area.
When it first hatches, the chick is about the size of a fuzzy little gray tennis ball with a pink beak and pink puffy legs. Both parents feed the young one “crop milk,” which comes from the adults’ upper digestive tracts. But at only a week old the chick can begin to practice the required feeding movement in the water, and they can also run quickly. In huge groups, parents can always find their own chick, and he or she can find Mom and Dad, just by their individual calls! And the devoted parents will continue feeding their hatchling for 65-70 days, until the little tyke’s bill has grown into the adult shape and is completely suited to the unique flamingo fishing technique.
So visit the Reid Park Zoo…..and look closely at the Flamingo Lagoon. Some of the members of the flamboyance there were hatched at the Zoo and have reached “adulthood” – so there’s a good chance we may see some mud nests under construction sometime soon!
Time for some FAQs
Question 1: Why do flamingos stand on one leg?
Nobody is sure. Scientists first speculated that the flamingos tucked in a leg to keep it warm, but the theory makes no sense since flamingos do very well in hot climates where they almost never need to warm themselves up. Researchers can only speculate that this one-legged position must be comfortable for them.
Question 2: What’s up with those backward-bending knees?
Trick question! Those knobby pink protuberances you can see about halfway up their very thin legs are really their ankles! They do have knees, but they’re not visible to us – they’re very near the body and hidden by feathers. If you think about your own ankles, it’s clear that they can bend your foot either up or down – but knees can’t do the same for your lower legs. Flamingos’ long, thin legs, by the way, allow them to wade into deeper waters than most birds in order to find food.
Question 3: Why are they called “Flamingos?”
It’s about the vivid coloration. Flamingo comes from the Latin, flamma, as in “flame.” Also, it’s much easier to remember than the Chilean Flamingos’ official scientific name, which is Phoenicopterus chilensis.
Question 4: Which animal has more cervical vertebrae (or neck bones, as we non-scientific types call them), a giraffe or a flamingo? (O.K. – not FREQUENTLY asked, but still a fun question)
Both animals have extremely long, flexible necks that are perfectly suited for their unique styles of feeding. It might be reasonable to think that the neck on an 18-foot creature ought to have more bones than the neck of a 4-foot bird. But all mammals, including you and me, or the tiniest mouse, or a huge rhinoceros, or even a giraffe have the same number of cervical vertebrae, only seven. The difference comes in the size of each vertebra. On the other hand, Chilean Flamingos have 19 elongated vertebrae in their necks, allowing them to specialize the position of their necks for feeding, dancing, marching, flying, and tucking their head and much of their neck away neatly under a wing.
Question 5: Why do people put plastic flamingos in their front yards? And sometimes even dress them up in seasonal decorations like Santa hats?
No one can say.