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Lesser Flamingo by Cheryl Crowley

Flamingo, Lesser

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Description

Flamingos are unique and unmistakable birds. They have existed in their current form for a long time—fossils of flamingo ancestors that are morphologically similar to the flamingos we see today have been found dating back to ~30 million years ago. Flamingos all have a characteristic oval-shaped body, with an extremely long neck above and extremely long legs below. They have the longest neck and legs relative to their body size of any bird in the world.

All species of flamingo have varying shades of characteristic pink plumage, which comes from carotenoid pigments in their diet. Most of a flamingo’s feathers are this pink color, except for their flight feathers, which are colored by melanin pigment and are black. It is thought that feathers pigmented by melanin are slightly more resistant to wear, and flamingos benefit from these more robust flight feathers during their migrations. Even if fed the same food under human care, different species of flamingo will still be different shades of pink from each other, suggesting that the different species have variation in their physiological mechanisms of processing and expressing these pigments. Juvenile flamingos are gray, slowly growing in pinker feathers as they consume more carotenoid pigments. It takes 2 – 4 years for flamingos to reach full adult plumage. Flamingo legs are also affected by these pigments—juveniles have black legs that slowly turn pink over the first few years of their lives.

Another unique aspect of flamingos is their beaks, which allows them to feed in a way similar to baleen whales. The inner edges of their beak are lined with hair-like structures called lamellae that can raised and lowered at will. Inside of the flamingo’s beak is a tongue that acts as a piston, sucking in and expelling water as it moves forward and back. A flamingo will lower the lamellae and move its tongue back, sucking particulate-filled water into its mouth. It will then raise the lamellae and move its tongue forward, pushing the water out while the raised lamellae act as a filter, collecting any food particles in the water, which are then swallowed. The 45 degree angle in the middle of their beak allows flamingos to have the gap between their upper and lower mandible be about the same throughout the entire length of their beak when they open their mouth, significantly increasing the effectiveness of their filter feeding.

Flamingos are often seen resting while standing on one leg, with the other leg tucked into their body feathers. This likely serves a thermoregulatory function, reducing the heat lost through extremely long, thin legs. However, flamingos are often seen in this position on hot days, so it is also likely just a comfortable resting position.

The lesser flamingo is unique in that is has a completely dark beak with some orange-pink color towards the tip, compared to the light white/pink/yellow base of all other flamingo species. These can also be differentiated by their smaller stature.

Classification

Overview
Flamingos are the only members of the order Phoenicopteriformes. There are six species of flamingo currently recognized.
Class
Aves
Order
Phoenicopteriformes
Family
Phoenicopteridae
Genus
Phoeniconaias
Species
P. minor

Key Facts

Conservation Status
Near Threatened
Lifespan
Typically 28 – 32 years, but up to 41 years in the wild. Up to 44 years under human care.
Height
2.6 – 3.0 ft (80 – 90 cm)
Weight
3.3 – 4.4 lbs (1.5 – 2 kg)
Wingspan
3.1 – 3.3 ft (95 – 100 cm)

The IUCN Red List classifies the lesser flamingo as Near Threatened. While lesser flamingos are the most abundant flamingo species with an estimated global population of ~2.22 – 3.24 million individuals, much of this population seems to be in decline. This decline is likely due to habitat loss of the locations where the specialized cyanobacteria diet of lesser flamingos is found, as well as a lack of consistent breeding throughout most of the population for a variety of reasons. Large portions of the population congregate in relatively small specialized habitat areas, making conservation of these locations especially critical for the well-being of this species.

Lake Natron in Tanzania is perhaps the most important breeding site for the lesser flamingo, as the only consistent breeding site for the eastern African population, which makes up more than 75% of the global population of this species. Conservation groups engaged in a 12 year fight to prevent a soda ash extraction plant from being built on the lake, which would disrupt the lesser flamingo’s food source and be a major blow to this species. Thankfully, in 2018 plans for the Lake Natron plant were moved elsewhere. Conservation organizations such as Wetlands International continue to work towards protecting vital habitat for this species.

Social Life
Flamingos are extremely social birds. A group of flamingos is known as a “flamboyance.” Lesser flamingos have the most impressive gatherings of any flamingo species, and have been observed gathering in a flock of 1 – 2 million individuals in the lakes of eastern Africa.

Starting a few months before breeding and continuing after, flamingos engage in collective displays with each other. In lesser flamingos, these sometimes consist of thousands of birds displaying at once. The purpose of these displays seems to be to stimulate hormones and synchronize breeding and nesting as much as possible, to take advantage of optimal habitat conditions for raising young and the relative safety of nesting at the same time as many other birds. These displays consist of a series of “dance moves”, which include:

  • Marching in unison in a tightly packed group
  • “Head flagging”: stretching the neck upwards with the beak pointing up, and rhythmically moving the head back and forth
  • “Wing salute”: spreading their wings wide open for a few seconds with their necks outstretched
  • “Twist-preen”: twisting their neck back to appear as if they are cleaning the feathers on their back for a few seconds, before popping their heads back up
  • “Wing-leg stretch”: extending the wing and leg on the same side of their body out backwards

Sometimes these “dance moves” are seen in a predictable sequence, with “head flagging” into “wing salute” into “twist-preen” being one of the most common routines.

When flamingo chicks hatch, they are quickly able to stand and walk around, and will join up with the other chicks in the breeding colony in a sort of group daycare situation known as a “creche”. These chicks will be looked after by a few adults while most adults go feed, and can consist of hundreds or even thousands of chicks.

Habitat and Range
Lesser flamingos live near inland lakes or coastal lagoons, often with extremely salty or alkaline (basic) water. The largest population is found in the Great Rift Valley of eastern Africa—more than 75% of all lesser flamingos live in this area. There are three smaller populations as well, found in southern Africa in Namibia & Botswana, in western Africa in Senegal & Mauritania, and in northwest India & Pakistan.

Flamingos are not considered “true” migratory birds in that they do not consistently move between the same relative locations. Some species do migrate, but it is inconsistent and erratic. When they do migrate, they fly at night.  Lesser flamingos fly to new lakes in vast numbers after a few months at the same lake, often in response to a dwindling food supply.

Diet
Flamingos are filter feeders. For feeding mechanisms and the effects of diet on flamingo pigmentation, see Description in the Information tab. 

All flamingo diets are quite specialized, but the lesser flamingo’s diet is especially narrow. They are almost entirely dependent on microscopic photosynthetic bacteria called cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, as well as a few other microorganisms. Lesser flamingos typically feed on the surface of shallower water by sweeping their neck and head back and forth. In areas where greater flamingos and lesser flamingos are both present, greater flamingos tend to feed on invertebrates at the bottom of the water body, while lesser flamingoes tend to feed on algae close to the surface of the water. This is known as “niche partitioning”, and greatly reduces competition between the two species.

Because flamingo chick beaks are not developed enough to filter feed at birth, flamingo parents (both male and female) will produce a liquid in their upper digestive tract known as “crop milk”. This secretion, which has similar nutritional value to mammal milk, is dripped directly into the chick’s mouth. Under human care, non-parents have also been observed producing crop milk and feeding it to chicks.

Predators
Flamingos tend to live in fairly inhospitable habitats, which sometimes only support flamingos and the microorganisms they feed on. Because of this, predation risk is lower than for species that live in constant close contact with predators. However, hyenas, lions, leopards, cheetahs, and jackals have all been observed preying on flamingos. Predatory birds will prey on young flamingos.

Reproduction
Sexual Maturity: 3 – 4 years
Breeding / Nesting Season: Highly irregular, no breeding some years
Incubation: ~28 days
Clutch size: 1, rarely 2

Information

Description

Flamingos are unique and unmistakable birds. They have existed in their current form for a long time—fossils of flamingo ancestors that are morphologically similar to the flamingos we see today have been found dating back to ~30 million years ago. Flamingos all have a characteristic oval-shaped body, with an extremely long neck above and extremely long legs below. They have the longest neck and legs relative to their body size of any bird in the world.

All species of flamingo have varying shades of characteristic pink plumage, which comes from carotenoid pigments in their diet. Most of a flamingo’s feathers are this pink color, except for their flight feathers, which are colored by melanin pigment and are black. It is thought that feathers pigmented by melanin are slightly more resistant to wear, and flamingos benefit from these more robust flight feathers during their migrations. Even if fed the same food under human care, different species of flamingo will still be different shades of pink from each other, suggesting that the different species have variation in their physiological mechanisms of processing and expressing these pigments. Juvenile flamingos are gray, slowly growing in pinker feathers as they consume more carotenoid pigments. It takes 2 – 4 years for flamingos to reach full adult plumage. Flamingo legs are also affected by these pigments—juveniles have black legs that slowly turn pink over the first few years of their lives.

Another unique aspect of flamingos is their beaks, which allows them to feed in a way similar to baleen whales. The inner edges of their beak are lined with hair-like structures called lamellae that can raised and lowered at will. Inside of the flamingo’s beak is a tongue that acts as a piston, sucking in and expelling water as it moves forward and back. A flamingo will lower the lamellae and move its tongue back, sucking particulate-filled water into its mouth. It will then raise the lamellae and move its tongue forward, pushing the water out while the raised lamellae act as a filter, collecting any food particles in the water, which are then swallowed. The 45 degree angle in the middle of their beak allows flamingos to have the gap between their upper and lower mandible be about the same throughout the entire length of their beak when they open their mouth, significantly increasing the effectiveness of their filter feeding.

Flamingos are often seen resting while standing on one leg, with the other leg tucked into their body feathers. This likely serves a thermoregulatory function, reducing the heat lost through extremely long, thin legs. However, flamingos are often seen in this position on hot days, so it is also likely just a comfortable resting position.

The lesser flamingo is unique in that is has a completely dark beak with some orange-pink color towards the tip, compared to the light white/pink/yellow base of all other flamingo species. These can also be differentiated by their smaller stature.

Classification

Overview
Flamingos are the only members of the order Phoenicopteriformes. There are six species of flamingo currently recognized.
Class
Aves
Order
Phoenicopteriformes
Family
Phoenicopteridae
Genus
Phoeniconaias
Species
P. minor

Key Facts

Conservation Status
Near Threatened
Lifespan
Typically 28 – 32 years, but up to 41 years in the wild. Up to 44 years under human care.
Height
2.6 – 3.0 ft (80 – 90 cm)
Weight
3.3 – 4.4 lbs (1.5 – 2 kg)
Wingspan
3.1 – 3.3 ft (95 – 100 cm)

The IUCN Red List classifies the lesser flamingo as Near Threatened. While lesser flamingos are the most abundant flamingo species with an estimated global population of ~2.22 – 3.24 million individuals, much of this population seems to be in decline. This decline is likely due to habitat loss of the locations where the specialized cyanobacteria diet of lesser flamingos is found, as well as a lack of consistent breeding throughout most of the population for a variety of reasons. Large portions of the population congregate in relatively small specialized habitat areas, making conservation of these locations especially critical for the well-being of this species.

Lake Natron in Tanzania is perhaps the most important breeding site for the lesser flamingo, as the only consistent breeding site for the eastern African population, which makes up more than 75% of the global population of this species. Conservation groups engaged in a 12 year fight to prevent a soda ash extraction plant from being built on the lake, which would disrupt the lesser flamingo’s food source and be a major blow to this species. Thankfully, in 2018 plans for the Lake Natron plant were moved elsewhere. Conservation organizations such as Wetlands International continue to work towards protecting vital habitat for this species.

Social Life
Flamingos are extremely social birds. A group of flamingos is known as a “flamboyance.” Lesser flamingos have the most impressive gatherings of any flamingo species, and have been observed gathering in a flock of 1 – 2 million individuals in the lakes of eastern Africa.

Starting a few months before breeding and continuing after, flamingos engage in collective displays with each other. In lesser flamingos, these sometimes consist of thousands of birds displaying at once. The purpose of these displays seems to be to stimulate hormones and synchronize breeding and nesting as much as possible, to take advantage of optimal habitat conditions for raising young and the relative safety of nesting at the same time as many other birds. These displays consist of a series of “dance moves”, which include:

  • Marching in unison in a tightly packed group
  • “Head flagging”: stretching the neck upwards with the beak pointing up, and rhythmically moving the head back and forth
  • “Wing salute”: spreading their wings wide open for a few seconds with their necks outstretched
  • “Twist-preen”: twisting their neck back to appear as if they are cleaning the feathers on their back for a few seconds, before popping their heads back up
  • “Wing-leg stretch”: extending the wing and leg on the same side of their body out backwards

Sometimes these “dance moves” are seen in a predictable sequence, with “head flagging” into “wing salute” into “twist-preen” being one of the most common routines.

When flamingo chicks hatch, they are quickly able to stand and walk around, and will join up with the other chicks in the breeding colony in a sort of group daycare situation known as a “creche”. These chicks will be looked after by a few adults while most adults go feed, and can consist of hundreds or even thousands of chicks.

Habitat and Range
Lesser flamingos live near inland lakes or coastal lagoons, often with extremely salty or alkaline (basic) water. The largest population is found in the Great Rift Valley of eastern Africa—more than 75% of all lesser flamingos live in this area. There are three smaller populations as well, found in southern Africa in Namibia & Botswana, in western Africa in Senegal & Mauritania, and in northwest India & Pakistan.

Flamingos are not considered “true” migratory birds in that they do not consistently move between the same relative locations. Some species do migrate, but it is inconsistent and erratic. When they do migrate, they fly at night.  Lesser flamingos fly to new lakes in vast numbers after a few months at the same lake, often in response to a dwindling food supply.

Diet
Flamingos are filter feeders. For feeding mechanisms and the effects of diet on flamingo pigmentation, see Description in the Information tab. 

All flamingo diets are quite specialized, but the lesser flamingo’s diet is especially narrow. They are almost entirely dependent on microscopic photosynthetic bacteria called cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, as well as a few other microorganisms. Lesser flamingos typically feed on the surface of shallower water by sweeping their neck and head back and forth. In areas where greater flamingos and lesser flamingos are both present, greater flamingos tend to feed on invertebrates at the bottom of the water body, while lesser flamingoes tend to feed on algae close to the surface of the water. This is known as “niche partitioning”, and greatly reduces competition between the two species.

Because flamingo chick beaks are not developed enough to filter feed at birth, flamingo parents (both male and female) will produce a liquid in their upper digestive tract known as “crop milk”. This secretion, which has similar nutritional value to mammal milk, is dripped directly into the chick’s mouth. Under human care, non-parents have also been observed producing crop milk and feeding it to chicks.

Predators
Flamingos tend to live in fairly inhospitable habitats, which sometimes only support flamingos and the microorganisms they feed on. Because of this, predation risk is lower than for species that live in constant close contact with predators. However, hyenas, lions, leopards, cheetahs, and jackals have all been observed preying on flamingos. Predatory birds will prey on young flamingos.

Reproduction
Sexual Maturity: 3 – 4 years
Breeding / Nesting Season: Highly irregular, no breeding some years
Incubation: ~28 days
Clutch size: 1, rarely 2