American Flamingo

Phoenicopterus ruber

American Flamingo
LaggedOnUser/Flickr/CC by-SA 2.0

The only flamingo species that naturally appears in North America, the American flamingo is occasionally considered a subspecies of the greater flamingo, and both birds are members of the Phoenicopteridae bird family. Unmistakable in identification, this is one of the most unique birds in its Caribbean range, and one of the most beloved by birders and non-birders alike. Discover more about these unique wading birds in this informative fact sheet.

Fast Facts

  • Scientific Name: Phoenicopterus ruber
  • Common Name: American Flamingo, Caribbean Flamingo, Greater Flamingo, Fillymingo
  • Lifespan: 40 years
  • Size: 35-50 inches
  • Weight: 4.9-6.2 pounds
  • Wingspan: 50 inches
  • Conservation Status: Least concern

American Flamingo Identification

All flamingos are instantly recognizable with their pink coloration, stilt-like legs, long necks, and large bills. Because there are different flamingo species that look similar, however, it is important to recognize the distinct field marks that characterize the American flamingo. This is particularly important in areas where flamingos may escape from captivity and could be mistaken for native residents.

Genders are similar with overall pink or pinkish-orange plumage with the strongest color on the tail, chest, neck, and head. The back and underparts may appear paler, even white. Overall color strength can vary significantly depending on the bird's diet, health, and maturity. Primary and secondary feathers are black but are typically invisible except in flight. Eyes are yellow, and legs and feet are pale or grayish with darker pink joints. The bill is pale whitish or pink with a black tip and a thick, strong downward "break" curve.

Juveniles are initially covered with fluffy, gray down, but gradually develop adult coloration as they mature. Very young birds have smaller, straighter bills and shorter necks.

American flamingos do not have a song, but do use a variety of raspy honking calls that can be quite loud and boisterous in large flocks, including while in flight. The speed and tempo of the calls can change depending on the bird's agitation, and softer, less urgent honks are common while feeding or during courtship.

American Flamingo Habitat and Distribution

These flamingos are common throughout the Caribbean, especially in the Bahamas and Cuba, as well as along the Caribbean coast of Mexico, the Yucatan, and in Central America. Some populations are also found along the northern coast of South America as far as northern Brazil, and there is a population in the Galapagos as well. American flamingos can be found in large, open, shallow ponds, lakes, lagoons, and mudflats, often with brackish or saline water. Vagrant sightings are regularly reported along the coasts adjacent to the Caribbean Sea, including in Texas and Florida. Some of those sightings, however, may be birds escaped from captivity rather than wild American flamingos, and therefore would not count on official life lists or species count records.

Migration Pattern

American flamingos do not typically migrate, though they can be nomadic as water levels and food sources change. Otherwise, the birds stay in the same range and appropriate habitats rather predictably.

Behavior

These birds are relatively shy toward humans, but are gregarious and will gather in medium or large flocks. They are strong but rare swimmers, and are far more frequently seen wading or standing rather than swimming. While at rest, they hold their necks in a relaxed S-shape and may balance on one leg, switching legs occasionally. In flight, their long legs stretch behind their bodies while their necks are stretched straight out front, giving them a distinct airborne profile.

Diet and Feeding

American flamingos feed while wading, holding their crooked bills upside down to filter small organisms and algae out of the water and even submerging their entire head at times. These are omnivorous birds that will eat whatever their bills filter, including algae and other aquatic plants as well as plankton, insects, fish, and crustaceans.

Nesting

American flamingos are monogamous birds and colonial nesters, and it is not uncommon to have nests from different flamingo pairs only a few feet apart. These birds choose mates through a series of coordinated movements, including walking, head bobbing, turning, and calling. The nest, built by both partners, is a raised, cone-shaped mound usually constructed with mud, though American flamingos in the Galapagos use stones and pebbles to build their nesting mounds. The mound may reach up to 18-20 inches tall, and has a depression in the center to safely hold the egg.

Eggs and Young

Only one chalky white egg is laid per mated pair of flamingos each year. Both parents will incubate the nest for 28-32 days, and after hatching, they feed their chick crop milk for 3-12 days until it joins a group of other recently hatched chicks for communal care. The young birds remain in that juvenile colony for approximately 75 days until their first flight.

Conservation

In the 1950s these birds were severely threatened with fewer than 25,000 believed to have been remaining in the wild, largely due to poaching and a range of threats. One of the most unusual threats was the use of flamingo feathers for ladies' hats and other fashion, which led to a great deal of hunting and poaching until the Migratory Bird Treat Act was enacted and such trade was deemed illegal.

Fortunately, their numbers have rebounded in recent decades, and while these birds are no longer considered threatened or endangered, they are still vulnerable to different hazards. Predators or natural disasters can quickly decimate entire flocks and could wipe out a flock's breeding potential one year if nests are destroyed. Fishing line tangles, lead poisoning from fishing tackle, and pollution of their waterways are other grave threats. On occasion, American flamingos may still be subject to poaching or persecution as well.

Tips for Backyard Birders

Despite the proliferation of pink plastic lawn flamingos, these are not backyard birds. It is essential to preserve the alkaline or brackish ponds they prefer to provide adequate feeding grounds. Birders should keep their distance from any American flamingos they see to avoid causing the birds stress that could force them to relocate.

How to Find This Bird

For the best views of American flamingos, birders may want to consider visiting an aviary, zoo, or marine park that is home to flocks of these colorful birds. While captive birds do not typically count on a life list, they can be ideal for observation and learning more about these unusual and popular birds. In the field, checking recent sightings reports can lead birders to areas known for flamingo populations, or hiring a guide in the appropriate regions can help birders see wild American flamingos.

Explore More Species in This Family

Birders who want to learn more about different flamingos should study up on all the flamingo species, including the many fun facts about these tropical waders. Other large, unique wading birds that are related to flamingos include:

Be sure to check out all the different bird profiles to learn more about your favorite species!