Flamingos, in my opinion, are the most overlooked and under-appreciated of the exotic birds. Sure, they’re beautiful and flamboyantly colored, but we seem to have become accustomed to, and perhaps even bored of the creatures. Most zoos around the country have at least one flamingo species in their collection and they’re often positioned right near the entrance like long-necked bellhops welcoming you to the facility. I’ve visited lagoons across the country and while the birds have their fans, you’ll never find a crowd at the flamingos like you will around rhinos, giraffes, or monkeys. I blame the lawn ornaments. Those plastic lawn decorations, lurching haphazardly from overgrown hedges and patchy lawns, have cost real live flamingos much of their gravitas and appeal.
But the familiar and under-appreciated flamingo is hiding an unexpected and amazing secret; one that goes far deeper than their startling plumage. The most amazing thing about flamingos is this: they are extremophiles.
Flamingos, left to their own devices, don’t make their homes on lawns, or golf courses, or along the shores of pristine and idyllic ponds. They prefer to take advantage of the places the rest of us avoid. Like camels, penguins, and the giant tube worms that thrive near sulfur-spewing ocean vents, flamingos worldwide live their lives where most other creatures simply cannot. Though all flamingo species are pretty extreme, the smallest of them, the species we call the lesser flamingo, is likely the most extreme of all.
The lesser flamingos at Safari West live an easy lifestyle in a clean clear pond with a steady supply of food and free security. Their wild cousins, on the other hand, live an altogether more unpredictable lifestyle and spend much of their lives flying from one water source to another in an unending quest for food. The wild birds must also contend with predators; primarily hyenas and Maribou storks (imagine a cross between a cartoon stork and a vulture and you’re halfway there). One way they defend themselves from these opportunistic hunters is by hanging out in large flocks. Safety in numbers is a tried and true technique for many prey species.
Flamingos of all species flock and groups of several thousand are not uncommon. The lesser flamingos, however, take it to a whole new level. When they gather in the Great Rift Valley in East Africa (specifically in Lake Natron, their most famous watering hole), lesser flamingos can form super-flocks or up to a million and a half birds.
This is where the extremophile part comes in. Lake Natron is no average lake. You know, the kind with clear blue waters and ducks and fish and whatnot? Lake Natron is a chemical stew with water that is both salty and caustic. It also gets extremely hot; sometimes approaching temperatures of 140-degrees (that’s about the temperature in a medium-grilled steak). As you might imagine, not much lives in Natron. Fish are virtually non-existent and those that do survive there are hyper-specialist extremophiles like our flamingos and even so, they tend to stick to the clearer, cooler areas. Likewise, the lake is avoided by most other forms of life since its waters would be pretty poisonous to drink or bathe in (famously, some animals that die in the lake eventually wash up on shore, virtually fossilized by accreted calcium. If you Google Lake Natron you’ll be rewarded with some amazing photography and some controversy over how the photos are understood).
This lake—and others like it in the rift—are primarily home to a few varieties of cyanobacteria. Also called blue-green algae, these little organisms use the chemicals in the water and the light of the sun to survive. Despite the name, these blue-green algae are neither blue nor green but actually a vibrant red. When Natron experiences an algal bloom, the lake appears incredible, like a lake of lava, or if you’re feeling macabre, blood. Again, you can find some incredible images online. These blooms, in a lake with little competition for resources, can be enormous. Enter our lesser flamingos. They are among the few creatures capable of braving the hostile environment of the lake to capitalize on this calorie-rich and abundant food supply.
How then, does a bird consume microscopic, free-floating algae? At this point, you may be recalling a page from a high school biology text showing different kinds of bird beaks and their uses. The eagle has a hook-like beak for tearing into prey while the woodpecker has a straight and narrow one for drilling and collecting treats. What kind of beak is needed to survive on pond scum? Take a look at the flamingo beak and then think back to the last documentary you saw about humpback or gray whales. You might notice these very different creatures share a distinct and similar frown. There’s a spectacular reason for that. Both baleen whales and all flamingos survive by filter-feeding. In whales, there’s a comb-like structure inside the mouth called baleen. A similar feature can be found in the flamingo beak. The inside of a flamingo bill is lined with sturdy hair-like structures called lamellae. When they feed, flamingos use their tongue as a pump, sucking in algae rich water and pushing it back out through a filter of lamellae. This allows them to trap all those delicious little cyanobacteria while minimizing the amount of chemically intense water they swallow. This remarkably efficient filtering system allows each flamingo to consume 60 grams worth of invisibly tiny particles out of the water each day. When you tally up the totals for a flock of a million or more, it equates to approximately 60 tons (120,000 pounds) of cyanobacteria being filtered out of the lake each and every day the flamingos are in it.
There are about a million other reasons why flamingos in general, and lesser flamingos in particular, are some of the most amazing birds on the planet. For instance, the way they produce their remarkable color, the mystery of their one-legged posture, the wonder of their system for rearing young (look up “crop milk” some time). The point is that the next time you’re visiting Safari West or anywhere else that is home to a flock of flamingos, don’t overlook these impressive creatures. Not only are they capable of surviving in a super-saline, caustic environment on nothing but algae, they’re able to do it while looking fabulous. Show them some respect.