Zookeeper Journal


Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber)

Lesser Flamingo (Phoenicopterus minor)

Status in the Wild: Flamingos are increasing in numbers due to the increase in man-made habitats, although Lesser Flamingos are close to qualifying for Vulnerable status


The sun’s rays emanate like spotlights through gaps in the dark rain-clouds, illuminating a pink haze on Kenya’s Lake Nakuru. The shimmering blur of thousands of flamingos melt into the lake’s mirrored surface. Their name is Latin for “flame,” given for their reddish-pink feathers derived from a diet rich in red pigmentation. The name alone conjures visions of paradise and exotic places far removed from the ordinary world. 


Without warning, the flamingoes launch like an airborne stampede, transforming the sky into a living cloud composed of thousands upon thousands of fluttering pink wings.

Flamingos are survivors of the dinosaur era, and they can live up to 50 years. They are classed in the order Ciconiiformes, which includes pelicans, storks, herons, bitterns, and other shore birds. They are known for standing on one spindly leg, and for curving their long necks over their backs, tucking their head under one wing. They are also known for their elaborate courtship displays, in which they often “march” in unison, performing “wing salutes” and other rituals.

For ages flamingos have remained a bird of mystery, an object of fascination and beauty. The ancient Egyptians revered these birds as the living embodiment of the sun god Ra, and they used drawings of the bird to signify the colour crimson. 
The bird’s appeal was not lost upon the ancient Romans who exhibited many exotic animals from distant places in their royal menageries. 

In the 19
th century, the wealthy noble class collected flamingos for displays on their royal estates. Wondrous scenes of flamingos in southern Florida captured the imagination of naturalist artists everywhere. The flamingo was one of John J. Audubon’s most famous bird portraits, reproduced in numerous editions of his book, Birds of America
. Artists and zoos made flamingos emblems of the exotic and the birds became a prominent Florida symbol.  

Today, in practically every community across the United States, one can find vivid assortments of flamingo garden ornaments, from sculpted clay to the famous pink plastic. Their association with gardens calls back to that centuries old practice of displaying the colourful birds in well-tended natural settings.

Flamingo exhibits became hallmarks in some of America’s first zoos, and many of these birds came from southern Florida. In 1899, the birds were a central exhibit in the New York Zoological Park, or “Bronx Zoo,” and they were an early addition to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. Flamingos were even depicted on the San Diego Zoo logo, reproduced on zoo souvenirs and tourist brochures. The Dallas Zoo hosted the nation’s largest flamingo exhibit, where Gregory S. Toffic, curator of birds, said that flamingos are “the most photographed animals in the Dallas Zoo, both as subject and as background for family snapshots.”

The creation of early American zoos was often prompted by worries about protecting wildlife. For instance, near the end of the 19
th century, over-hunting nearly wiped out the American bison. The conservation efforts of zoos, such as the New York Zoological Society, helped re-establish some of the herds. There was concern, too, that flamingos would disappear from Florida where it had become a prominent state symbol despite its migration to Caribbean islands. Not only was the flamingo an emblem for the exotic, it now became a symbol for tourism.

Throughout the world, one can find six kinds of flamingos of different sizes and shades of pink, as well as eating and breeding habits. African flamingos are just as exotic as their Florida counterparts. There are two kinds in Africa, and they are named plainly the Greater Flamingo and the Lesser Flamingo. These species are the only two in the world that live in close harmony on the shallow soda-crusted lakes of East Africa; though they feed in the same water, they do not compete for the same food.

At five feet, the brightly plumed Greater Flamingo towers above its more delicate cousin, which stands two feet shorter. Lessers, however, are more numerous and it is the only true African flamingo since it lives almost exclusively in the Rift Valley.  The Greater migrates from the Mediterranean in the north to lakes in the Rift Valley, and it has the widest distribution of all flamingos.   

The brightest crimson colour of the Greater covers the back edge of the wing; also, their legs are a bright pink. Other than that, they are actually pale in comparison to other flamingos because their body is mostly white tinged with pink. The outer edge of their bill is black and the rest pink, extending back to the face and around their yellow eyes. 

In contrast, the back and wings of the Lesser are a dark crimson; their head and neck is darker pink; and their entire bill is dark red, appearing almost black, and extending back to the eye. Lastly, the legs are bright red.

Between the Greater and Lesser flamingos, feeding is a boisterous activity. Like shoppers at a holiday clearance sale, flamingos congregate by the thousands in the shallows near shore where food is plentiful. Squeezing together in densely packed groups, a bird vying for eating space may swing its head like a club. The birds that are struck simply move to another space and resume feeding.

The Lesser Flamingo feeds with its beak swishing back and forth, penetrating the water no more than half an inch. Skimming the water, the bill traps blue-green algae (called Spirulina) in its lamelle composed of tiny teeth and furry ridges that act as a filter. During the feeding process, gallons of water pass through the bill, spilling out the other side. The flamingo never drinks the concentrated brew of salt, soda, sulphate, and fluoride.

Greater Flamingos submerge their heads close to the bottom, feeding on a diet of brine shrimp, insect larvae, small molluscs, and crustaceans. Sometimes the birds will stir up the mud with their webbed feet, dislodging larger crustaceans and molluscs so that they float free and can be sucked up into the bill.

If the water becomes too deep for feeding, both birds will swim much the same way as ducks. As swimmers, however, flamingos appear dreadfully awkward because of their short tails, and the fact that their long legs stick out of the water behind them.


The meal concludes when all the birds take flight with only a double-wingspan distance from one another. The sight of thousands of flamingos in the air at once is breathtaking. Landing at another part of the lake, the birds will spend the rest of the day preening and combing feathers with their bills. Then they’ll return to feeding towards the end of the day when temperatures cool down. The feeding continues until dark when the flamingos scatter again, migrating to deeper parts of the lake or to other lakes nearby.

From this behaviour, one can see how local Masai tribesmen assumed that during the cooler times at night, flamingos descend into the middle of the lake so they can hibernate. Then when it’s time, the birds rise again to feed. Another tale suggests that flamingos don’t hatch from eggs like other birds. Instead, they are able to fly at birth, coming up from the lake feet first, assuming a normal standing posture near the edge of the lake to feed.

It’s easy to explain this Masai tale from what we know about flamingos today: Flamingos make nests and lay eggs on the mud flats far from shore. From a distance, the Masai would’ve had a difficult time seeing the nests and eggs because of the shimmering heat radiation rising over the lake. The effect of this shimmering (a mirage) creates the illusion that the birds are hovering a few feet above the water’s surface. Furthermore, the crystal-clear reflection of the birds on the water’s mirrored surface makes them appear to be upside down, accounting for the Masai observation that flamingos are born feet first.

Jackals, cheetahs, leopards, hyenas, and even lions prey upon flamingos. But their most dangerous predators are other birds, such as the tawny eagles and marabou storks.  

 With a balding skull and long, scissor-like beak, marabou storks stand like dirty hunched-over teardrops. Some say that the storks remind them of an undertaker on the prowl. These birds are opportunists, walking through flamingo colonies in search of eggs, stabbing them with their pointed beaks, or more ghastly, they will go after week-old flamingo chicks. The effect on the population can be staggering since flamingos lack any real means of defence against this methodical, stalking bird. Those who die of natural causes, however, far outnumber those killed by predators. The so-called “Marabou Litter Patrol” quickly disposes of flamingo carcasses along the shoreline.


Suggested Reading

Hara, Flamingo, A Photographer’s Odyssey, New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1992