The five species in the Phoenicopteridae family are all flamingos. All five species have oval-shaped bodies with pink or crimson-red feathers covering their bodies. Their black flight feathers can be seen when they spread their wings. Flamingos have exceptionally long legs and necks, and their large bills curve downward in the middle. The upper part of the bill is smaller than the lower part, which is very unusual for birds. Their length from bill tip to tail varies between 31.5 to 63 inches (80 to 160 centimeters), and they weigh between 5.5 to 7.7 pounds (2.5 to 3.5 kilometers). The greater flamingo is about five feet (1.5 meters) tall. The smallest one, the lesser flamingo, is only about 3 feet (0.9 meter) tall.
Most flamingos live in South America and Africa. They also live in the Caribbean, southern Europe, southwest Asia, the Middle East, Pakistan, and India. Flamingos sometimes visit the Florida Keys and other places in southeastern United States.
Flamingos usually breed at large lakes, but they can feed in a large variety of shallow lakes and lagoons, either inland or coastal. The bodies of water can be small and are usually salty (even saltier than ocean water). But some flamingos also feed in fresh water or in rice fields. They find their food in lakes from sea level all the way up to 14,000-foot (3,500-meter) mountains. The Andean flamingos in South America feed on lakes loaded with natural chemicals (chlorides and sulfates) that other birds avoid. For that reason, the flamingos do not have to compete with other birds for the food in those lakes.
A flamingo feeds with its head upside down in the water. It sweeps its bill from side to side. The outer edges of both the upper and lower part of its bill are lined with two rows of comblike bristles called lamellae (luh-MEL-ee). As the bird sucks water into its mouth, the lamellae keeps large sea creatures from going in, while letting the foods it eats get through. Flamingos pump the water in and out with their tongues as they swallow their food. The lamellae on the smaller flamingo species are close together, and they keep out everything except algae (AL-jee), diatoms, and other very tiny organisms. The larger flamingo species have fewer lamellae and they eat a more varied diet including insects, snails, and brine shrimp.
BEHAVIOR AND REPRODUCTION
Flamingos fly with their long necks and legs sticking straight out. When they find a good feeding spot, they often gather in enormous flocks. Sometimes the flocks number more than a million birds. Most flamingos do not migrate regularly, but they move when water levels change in their habitats. Everything they do depends on rainfall and drought patterns. When the water level is just right in a lake, hundreds of thousands of flamingos might breed there at the same time. In muddy areas, their nests are towers as tall 16 inches (40 centimeters) made of mud, stones, and shells. In rocky areas, the females lay their eggs right on the ground. Each pair has just one chick that is cared for by both parents. It takes the chicks between sixty-five and ninety days to learn to fly and feed themselves.
FLAMINGOS AND PEOPLE
Pictures of flamingos appeared on cave drawings 7,000 years ago. People have hunted them and eaten their eggs for thousands of years, but many flamingos live in places that are hard for people to reach, and many others are protected by laws.
Four of the five species of flamingos are in trouble. The Andean flamingo is listed as Vulnerable, facing a high risk of extinction. The James’s, Chilean, and lesser flamingos are listed as Near Threatened, not currently threatened, but could become so.