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Feeding and Breeding of Flamingos, the Beautiful Long-Necked Water Birds

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Flamingos, the beautiful water bird.

Flamingos, the beautiful water bird.

Flamingo is any of a family of large, long-legged, long-necked water birds found in southern Eurasia, Africa, Madagascar, the Caribbean area, southern South America, Florida, and the Galápagos Islands. Gregarious birds, flamingos sometimes appear in large numbers.

The six species, classified in three genera, comprise the greater flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus), the Chilean flamingo (Phoenicopterus chilensis), the lesser flamingo (Phoeniconaias minor), the Andean flamingo (Phoenicoparrus andinus), the American flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber), and James' flamingo (Phoenicoparrus jamesi).

Flamingos make up the family Phoenicopteridae, in the order Phoenicopteriformes, class Aves. Lesser flamingos, which inhabit Africa and India, are the most numerous of the six species.

Most flamingos feed on very small aquatic organisms, such as blue-green algae and diatoms, that occur in warm brackish or saltwater lakes and lagoons. A reddish substance called carotene in their food is responsible for the birds' characteristic pinkish plumage.

The birds are filter feeders. They obtain their food from the water or mud by using a highly specialized filtering structure in their bills. The tongue of the flamingo is thick and fleshy. It lies in a deep groove in the lower mandible. As the flamingo holds its bill upside down in the water, the tongue works like a piston and water-containing food is taken in by simple suction.

By vigorous movement of the tongue and throat, water is sucked in and expelled three or four times per second. Large particles of food and debris are kept out of the mouth by hairlike structures on the edges of the mandible.

The diet of the common, or greater, flamingo (P. roseus) is more varied than that of the other flamingos; it feeds on small mollusks and crustaceans as well as on algae and diatoms. The food requirements of flamingos are enormous.

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Their geographical distribution is influenced by the availability of brackish or saline lakes where evaporation is high and food organisms can multiply in large numbers. Food of this kind must be extracted almost dry, however, since this type of water is very toxic to flamingos.

Flamingos are 36 to 50 inches (91-127 cm) long from head to tail. The legs and neck are longer in proportion to the body than any other bird. Adults are usually pink or red; this color is brightest on the upper wing coverts. The flight feathers are black. The bill and legs are usually a bright red or yellow.

During flight, the flamingo's neck is extended straight out ahead and the legs straight out behind the body. The birds are very vocal in flight, with a honking call much like that of geese. At rest, they often stand on one leg with the other drawn up near the flank.


Flamingos breed in large colonies. In Africa they form colonies numbering more than 900,000 pairs. One million pairs are known to nest on one lake alone.

The nest is a truncated cone of mud, 6 to 14 inches (15–36 cm) high, with a shallow depression scooped out on top. There is normally one chalky egg. It is incubated by both parents who fold their long legs atop the nest.

The downy gray chick is cared for by both parents and remains in the nest for two or three days. Parent birds are able to recognize their own chicks even in tight flocks. Each pair of birds feeds its own young by regurgitation until the young bird is able to fly.

Upon leaving the nest, the young birds form large flocks, or crèches, that are attended by a few adult birds. Young flamingos are very gooselike and are agile swimmers. Flamingos are long-lived birds; one greater flamingo kept at an Australian zoo was at least 83 years old when it died.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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