Not Just Pretty In Pink, final draft

This topic submitted by Kelsey Powell ( kpatmu@aol.com) at 7:33 PM on 6/5/02.

Tara and Scott SCUBA along the Wall at Runway Ten, 15 m deep, San Salvador, Bahamas.

Tropical Field Courses -Western Program-Miami University


Not Just Pretty in Pink
Imagine standing outside on a warm sunny day, looking out onto the tropical landscape, and seeing thousands of brilliant pink flamingos against a background of dark green mangroves. What a magnificent view! This is what you might see if you happened to come across a large colony, or pat, of these very social creatures. Studied by ornithologists and actually puzzling taxonomists, this radiant animal has been mesmerizing mankind for many years. There is much more to learn about the Phoenicopterus r. ruber than meets the eye!
Flamingos are the only members of the family Phoenicopteridae, with five species divided into three genera. Fossil evidence indicates that flamingos existed about 30 million years ago, before many other avian orders had evolved. They are presently found in tropical and subtropical areas but have been recorded throughout history on almost every continent. Now the national bird of the Bahamas, this long legged, long necked bird has made quite an impact throughout history. Romans considered flamingo tongue to be a delicacy, Egyptians revered the flamingo as the living symbol of the sun god Ra, and flamingo fat is still considered a cure for tuberculosis by some Andean miners. The word flamingo actually comes from the Latin word for flame, revealed by the bright colors on the feathers.
The Caribbean flamingo, described by Linnaeus as the typical flamingo and named Phoenicopterus r. ruber, is limited to the Yucatan, West Indies, Bahamas, Galapagos Islands, and the northernmost tip of South America. Although this species has been spotted in southern Florida, it rarely roams there and has not been proven to reproduce there. It is sometimes referred to as American, Cuban, rosy, or West Indian. The largest colony of flamingos in the world, estimated at 60,000, is actually located on the southern Bahamian island of Great Inagua.
Flamingos live in a habitat of shallow salt lakes, lagoons, mangroves, and anywhere there is lots of mud and water. Since the majority of lakes where they live have high concentrations of salt, some species have adapted to a high-salinity environment and are capable of drinking fresh water from boiling geysers. They feed on organic matter in the mud at the bottom of the water they wade in, along with small invertebrates such as brine flies and shrimp. They migrate in colonies of thousands, but the tropical weather keeps the Caribbean species in the Bahamas. They can live up to twenty years in the wild and fifty years in captivity, while growing up to five feet in height and weighing an average of six to seven pounds.
Their one-legged stance and flamboyant pink color make flamingos among the most recognizable of the world’s exotic birds. Actually, when they are first born, chicks have gray down with black legs and bills. It is only later that they develop their characteristic pink legs, tri-colored curved bill, and pink and crimson plumage with black wing feathers. So where do these bright colors come from? The brilliant pink Caribbean flamingos are the brightest of their species. The pink coloring of the birds’ feathers, legs, and face is actually a result of their diet. The birds feed on brine shrimp, which contain carotenoid pigments that affect their plumage. There are also rich sources of carotenoid pigments in the algae that the birds consume each day, either directly or indirectly. As a matter of fact, when they captured flamingos and put them in zoos, the animals stayed perfectly healthy but completely lost their pink color. Zoologists were perplexed and went out into the birds’ habitat to find out what they were missing in their diet. Shortly after the birds were fed their daily supplement of carotenoids, they regained most of their brilliant color.
The feeding method of flamingos is characteristic and peculiar. They are equipped to digest everything from bacteria to algae to insect larvae to fish. To get food of such a mixture of sizes and shapes, the flamingo lowers its head into the water, lays its open beak’s upper surface on the bottom, and swishes its upside-down head back and forth in a sweep through the ooze. The mandibles are specially equipped with stiff lamellae, which act like a strainer. The tongue then pushes the runny muck through the lamellae, and the flamingo eats what is left in the mouth. The ratio of food content to mud volume is quite small, so this process is repeated many times. Another unique eating habit, which is characteristic to flamingos in the Bahamas and Florida area, is to swallow snail-like cerithium mollusks whole. The flamingos have very powerfully muscled stomachs that crush the shells and trigger digestion.
In addition to the specialized body parts like the tongue, lamellae, and stomach, these wading birds have long necks, legs, and beaks to make them efficient feeders in their environment of lagoons, mangroves, and salt lakes where there is lots of mud and water. Their long flexible neck sweeps through the long stretches of mud in a single motion. Their long legs help wade in the shallows and squeeze through dense vegetation. Also, their webbed feet support them on soft mud and help them in stirring up food. When the water is beyond wading depth, their webbed feet aid the bird in swimming and briefly diving. In addition, since flamingos are virtually defenseless, their main form of protection is to fly away. They have specialized flight feathers that make them effective in the air.
Flamingos are social creatures, living and breeding in very large colonies. They instinctively depend on their senses in order to communicate. Like most birds, flamingos have an excellent sense of hearing. These very vocal animals make loud, goose-like, honking notes that vary in pitch, used for different functions like parent/chick recognition or signaling when there is danger nearby. These communal birds also use vision as an important role in helping to synchronize collective displays of social behavior between several hundred to several thousand birds. Head bobbing, neck twisting, communal marching, and other elaborate visual displays are highly infectious in the large colonies and help the birds communicate with each other. (The eye of the flamingo is actually larger than it’s brain!) The sense of taste and smell are poorly developed in birds so, like other shorebirds and waders, flamingos depend on the flicker of touch in searching for prey. Therefore, the tactile organs on the tongue are very important in seizure and ingestion.
A female flamingo will most often initiate mating by walking away from the pat, or group, with her larger male counterpart following close behind. She invites the male to mate close to the water during the summertime. After mating the male stands on the female’s back, then jumps off over her head. Both parents actively participate in nest building, incubating, and chick rearing. The flamingos form long-term pair bonds, so they will be looking for the same mate when mating season comes around next summer. Breeding is synchronized within the pat so that most of the birds are laying eggs at the same time.
Flamingos nest in dense colonies of up to thousands of individuals for safety and protection. They do this on open areas or mire flats that are wet enough to provide mud for their nests. They pull mud, grasses, and feathers with their beaks toward their feet to make a mound. Each nest holds only one egg and can be one inch to one foot in height, serving as protection against the extreme heat and flooding that occurs at ground level. Once hatched, parents are able to recognize their own chick by sight and vocalization. When feeding time comes around, both the male and female adults are able to feed their chick a secretion of the upper digestive tract referred to as crop milk. It is similar to mammal’s milk, but is bright red in color due to the pigment in their bodies. The chicks are fed for about the first eleven weeks, until their beaks begin to hook and they can feed themselves in a similar manner as the adults.
During nesting, the eggs are especially vulnerable to mammalian egg predators. The adults keep watch over the nest for protection, but there are still some along the edges that get eaten each year. Most flamingo predators are other species of birds. On Great Inagua Island, feral pigs prey on flamingos. Like other birds, the adult flamingos molt their flight feathers simultaneously and are grounded for several weeks in the summer. This makes them temporarily vulnerable to hunters. Hunting for plumage is not a central problem because the dead flamingos’ feathers lose their color with time and when in the sun. Habitat destruction and pollution are the greatest threat to wading birds. It has a negative effect on the breeding and feeding grounds of flamingos.
The flamingo is of importance to humans and also the ecological food chain. By eating blue-green algae, the bird helps keep the algae level down in that area. They also help control the number of small crustaceans and mollusks. On the other hand, flamingos can damage the lagoons they live in by creating their nests, which can actually lead to flooding when the soil is washed away.
There are many organizations on the islands of the Bahamas working very hard to keep the Caribbean flamingo off the endangered species list. The Caribbean flamingo is listed in the CITES Appendix II, which lists this species in need of protection and considered to become endangered if not regulated. The rookery on Great Inagua affords protection for some 30,000 flamingos, which helps the island of the Bahamas remain the greatest world population of the Caribbean species. The US Migratory Bird Act of 1918 also protects this species. There are presently sixteen national parks in the Bahamas protecting endangered and native species.

References:
National Geographic Society. Field Guide to Birds of North America. Washington D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1983.
Pough, Richard. Auduban Water Bird Guide. Garden City New York: Doubleday & Company, 1951.
Brooks, Bruce. On the Wing. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1989.
Slater, Peter. Encyclopedia of Animal Behavior. New York: Equinox Limited, 1987.
Chapman, Frank. Handbook of Birds of Eastern North America. New York: Dover Publications, 1966.
Brown, L. The Mystery of the Flamingos. London: Country Life Limited, 1959.
Gallet, E. Flamingos of the Camargue. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1950.
Palmer, Ralph. Handbook of North American Birds. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1962.
Perrins, Christopher and Middleton, Alex. The Encyclopedia of Birds. New York: Facts on File Publications, 1985.
Forshaw, Joseph. Encyclopedia of Birds. San Diego: Academic Press, 1998.
Grzimek, Bernhard. Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1972.


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