I’ll admit, I had trouble deciding what animal to tell you about this week. Since its New Year’s Eve, I knew I wanted one that symbolized a new year and a new start. My head immediately went to the phoenix, the mythical bird that bursts into flame upon its death only to be reborn from the ashes. It’s a classic symbol of rebirth and renewal in my mind. Unfortunately, it also doesn’t exist (being a mythical creature and all).
But never fear! In my research on phoenixes, I stumbled upon the animal that (maybe) inspired the phoenix: the flamingo.
You can totally see the resemblance, right?
To be fair, the relationship between phoenixes and flamingos is spotty at best. Some suggest that flamingoes inspired phoenixes because of their nesting habits – lesser flamingos will nest in African salt lakes that get EXTREMELY hot. Adults can survive the heat, but eggs can’t. Expecting parents will thus hide their eggs in salt pillar nests, and, when ready, the chicks will literally rise from the salt “ashes.” The word “flamingo” is also derived from the Latin word for flame, flamma.
Sure, the connection between flamingos and phoenixes maaaayyyy be a little tenuous. Still, it’s a good of an excuse as any to teach you about some pretty sweet birds!
- There are six species of flamingos
- Greater flamingos, lesser flamingos, Chilean flamingos, Andean flamingos, James’ (or puna) flamingos, and American (or Caribbean) flamingos. They all look similar, although you can tell them apart based on their leg, beak, and eye coloration. They also all belong to (and are the sole members of) the Phoenicopteridae family.
- They live on multiple continents
- If you had asked me yesterday to name where flamingos lived, I would have said, “uhhhh, somewhere warm?”. Which, in my defense, is not incorrect. But to be more specific, American, Chilean, Andean, and James’ flamingos live in the Western hemisphere (North and South America), while greater and lesser flamingos live in the eastern hemisphere (Africa, Asia, and Europe). These shallow-water birds tend to flock in mudflats and lagoons – basically any shallow saltwater both inland and on the coast.
- They are what they eat
- Flamingos get their characteristic pink coloration from a substance in their food called carotenoids. Carotenoids are the pigments that create the red, orange, and yellow coloration in plants like carrots and tomatoes. They are also found in the algae and shrimp that flamingos like to eat. As a flamingo eats and digests algae and brine shrimp, its body metabolizes the carotenoids and turns its feathers pink. The more well-fed a flamingo is, the pinker and brighter its coloration.
- Getting their coloration takes time
- Flamingos aren’t born pink – as we just learned, they get their pink color through their food. Baby flamingos, or chicks, are a whitish-gray color, and they won’t actually turn pink until they are approximately two years old.
- So does getting their hook-shaped bill
- Unlike their parents, flamingo chicks have a straight bill. This bill will curve as the chick grows and matures. Getting a curved beak is important, as it helps flamingos successfully filter out water and mud from their food. To feed, a flamingo will first put its head upside-down in the water, with their beak pointing to their feet. Then, they will shake their head back and forth and use their tongue to pump water in and out of their beak. As the water rushes out, any food (think algae and small crustaceans) will get caught inside. Flamingos hold their breath while filter feeding underwater (as you might expect!).
- Flamingo chicks drink milk
- Not milk like mammals do, but crop milk. Crop milk is a secretion from the crop (area where food is stored prior to digestion) of birds like pigeons, doves, some penguins, and flamingos. Flamingos will feed their young with crop milk for the first six months of their life, gradually weaning them off of the milk and onto solid food. Feeding with crop milk has a visible effect on the parents – they will slowly lose their pink coloration as they continue feeding their young.
- Flamingo parents help each other
- Flamingos live in large groups that work together to protect everyone from predators and to raise the young. In fact, a flamingo colony goes through synchronous nesting, meaning that the whole colony lays eggs at the same time. Both the male and female in a breeding pair will make the nest (a mound of mud, stones, and feathers) and incubate a single egg for about a month. Here’s where the synchronous nesting comes in – basically all the eggs in a colony will hatch at around the same time, leading to an influx of chicks. These chicks will gather into a large group called a creche, and adult flamingos will look after all the chicks in the creche. It’s a flamingo nursery, complete with parents bringing their kid their own lunch – flamingos can recognize their chick by their vocalizations and will only feed their offspring.
- They often stand on one leg
- And we aren’t quite sure why. There are two prominent hypotheses. One is that standing on one leg actually takes less muscle energy than standing on two. A 2017 study found that while a flamingo cadaver could stand stably on one leg, it was unstable on two. This suggests that standing on one leg requires little muscle engagement from flamingos but standing on two legs does. Another hypothesis is that standing on one leg reduces heat loss. By having only one foot in water and keeping the other tucked close to the body, flamingos may be able to stay warmer. Whatever the reason, chances are if you see a flamingo in the wild or at the zoo, it’s chilling on just one leg.
- They’re highly adapted for living near salt water
- Remember the story I told you before about lesser flamingos living in salt lakes? I left out a part of that story – these salt lakes are pretty extreme. One lake at the base of a mountain in Tanzania, called Lake Natron, reaches temperatures of 140 degrees, is oversaturated with salt, and has a pH of 9.5 – 10. This level of acidity will strip ink off of paper and calcify the remains of animals that fall in. Speaking of which, Lake Natron is surrounded by the calcified corpses of animals like bats and swallows. The exception? Lesser flamingos. Every few years when the water is just right, lesser flamingos will flock to Lake Natron and build their salt pillar nests. In fact, 75% of lesser flamingos are born here. While not all flamingos live in lakes quite this extreme, flamingos live in saltwater areas and have adaptations to protect themselves. For instance, flamingo legs are extremely leathery, providing protection from caustic salt water. They also excrete excess salt through salt glands in their nostrils. For some flamingos, like those who live on lakes with extremely high salt concentrations, the only source of fresh water is boiling geysers. To stay hydrated, flamingos have evolved to be able to drink water that approaches a boiling temperature.
- A group of flamingos is called a flamboyance
- Or if you want to be less fun, you can also call a group of flamingos a colony, stand, or pat. But flamboyance is, in my opinion, obviously the best word for the task!
Although they aren’t bursting into flame, I can see where flamingos might have inspired legends of the phoenix. It takes a pretty sturdy bird to survive and thrive in a caustic salt lake. I hope you can be as sturdy and adapt to whatever comes our way in 2022!
Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute
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