Range:

All continents except Antarctica

Habitat:

Large, shallow lakes or lagoons

Think pink—and orange?

With their pink and crimson plumage, long legs and necks, and strongly hooked bills, flamingos cannot be mistaken for any other type of bird. These beauties have long fascinated people. An accurate cave painting of a flamingo, found in the south of Spain, dates back to 5,000 B.C. Today, images of flamingos are found in literature (Alice used them as croquet mallets in Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll), and immortalized as plastic lawn ornaments!

The flamingo’s pink or reddish color comes from the rich sources of carotenoid pigments (like the pigments of carrots) in the algae and small crustaceans the birds eat. We eat carotenoids, too, whenever we munch on carrots, beets, and certain other veggies, but not enough to turn us orange! Caribbean flamingos, a subspecies of greater flamingo, are the brightest, showing their true colors of red, pink, or orange on their legs, bills, and faces.

Home is where the food is…

Flamingos live in lagoon or large, shallow lakes. These bodies of water may be quite salty or caustic, too much so for most other animals. In some lakes, their only animal “neighbors” are algae, diatoms, and small crustaceans. That works in the flamingo’s favor, as the birds dine on these small creatures!

Chilean, Andean, and puna flamingos are found in South America; greater and lesser flamingos live in Africa, with greaters also found in the Middle East; the Caribbean subspecies is native to Mexico, the Caribbean, and the northernmost tip of South America.

The flamingo’s pink or orange color comes from the food they eat, including algae, diatoms, and small aquatic insects and crustaceans such as shrimp.
Flamingos like company! In East Africa, more than one million lesser flamingos may gather together, forming the largest flock known among birds today.
Standing on one leg really is a flamingo’s most comfortable resting position.
The Andean flamingo is the only flamingo species with yellow legs.
The San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park are among only a handful of zoos in the world to raise offspring from three of the five flamingo species. Together, we have successfully hatched over 450 chicks so far.
The ancient Egyptians used the silhouette of the flamingo as the hieroglyphic for the color red, and it also represented the reincarnation of Ra, the Sun God.
Flamingos, like pigeons, feed their chicks a milky fluid from their upper digestive tract. Its nutritional value is similar to the milk mammals produce!
Once shed, flamingo feathers quickly lose their color.
Flamingos have good hearing but little or no sense of smell.

Flamingos as ambassadors

Guests are instantly drawn to our Caribbean flamingo flock as they enter the San Diego Zoo. And who wouldn’t be? With their flamboyant color and amusing behaviors, flamingos have been on hand to welcome Zoo guests since 1932, about 10 years after the Zoo grounds opened to visitors. They are our unofficial ambassadors!

While much is know about flamingo breeding behavior, there are never any guarantees. Any major or minor change to the flock or exhibit can start or stop breeding. For example, in the early 1980s, a number of flamingos were relocated. It was completely unexpected that this action would cause the remaining birds to stop breeding for the next 14 years! A number of remedies were tried. Finally, new birds were introduced and the exhibit renovated to improve the nesting area. One or both changes did the trick, and the Zoo’s flamingos began breeding again in 1996 and have bred almost every year since then. The Zoo has hatched more than 170 since 1957. Today, it is home to just under 90 adult Caribbean flamingos.

Hear from a flamingo keeper in the blog post First Flamingo Hatch of 2012.

Once a year there is an event at the Zoo that is unlike any other. After weeks of preparation, three departments are mobilized, dozens of keepers are involved, all of the flamingos are caught up, and everyone gets wet! The occasion? The annual Flamingo Roundup! Why do we catch the whole flock—even the healthy ones—once a year? They are all due for their West Nile virus booster shot. Each flamingo is also weighed and given and general check-up during the roundup.

Safari Park success

​At the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, the first greater flamingo egg was laid in 1998; 6 years later, another greater flamingo chick pecked its way out through its shell and into history in 2004 as the facility’s 100th hatching of this subspecies. Today, the Park has the largest flock of greater flamingos in the United States at around 150 birds. We have also hatched 173 chicks so far. The Safari Park is also home to lesser flamingos and Chilean flamingos.

Over time, people have used flamingos for food and medicine. Currently, no flamingo species is endangered, although the puna, or James’, flamingo was thought to be extinct in 1924; it was rediscovered in 1957.

But as with many wild species, the threat of habitat loss due to road construction and housing developments, causing some populations to be threatened. In 1989, about 100 Caribbean flamingos died in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula from lead poisoning, due to the ingestion of lead shot. Lead bullets are now prohibited in that area.

The Andean flamingo is considered the rarest of the flamingo species. It lives high in the mountains of Chile, Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina. People have been collecting the flamingos’ eggs and expanding into their habitat with farms, road construction, and urban development. Chile has now established a national flamingo reserve around one of the lakes used by the birds for breeding colonies and is taking steps to protect other lakes for the flamingos.

The Flamingo Specialist Group was created in 1978 to study, monitor, and help conserve the world’s flamingo populations. Working with the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the group monitors and surveys wild flamingos and develops action plans for species that may be threatened.