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. Unmistakable in identification, this is one of the most unique birds in its Caribbean range.

Common Name: American Flamingo, Caribbean Flamingo, Greater Flamingo, Fillymingo
Scientific Name: Phoenicopterus ruber
Scientific Family: Phoenicopteridae

Appearance and 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.

  • Bill: Pale whitish or pink with black tip, thick, strong downward "break" curve
  • Size: 35-50 inches long with 60-inch wingspan, very long neck, very long legs
  • Colors: Pink, white, black, yellow, orange, gray
  • Markings: 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.

    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.

    Species is monotypic with no officially recognized subspecies.

    Foods, Diet, and Foraging

    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.

    Habitat and Migration

    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.

    Vocalizations

    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.

    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.

    Reproduction

    American flamingos are monogamous birds and colonial nesters, and it is not uncommon to have nests from different 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.

    Both parents will incubate the nest for 28-32 days, and after hatching, they feed the 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. Only one chalky white egg is laid per mated pair of flamingos each year.

    Attracting American Flamingos

    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.

    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.

    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. 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.

    Similar Birds

    • Roseate Spoonbill (Ajaia ajaja)
    • Scarlet Ibis (Eudocimus ruber)
    • Chilean Flamingo (Phoenicopterus chilensis)
    • Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus)