Even though there are only six species of flamingos in the world, birders and non-birders alike can instantly recognize these flamboyant birds. These distinctive wading birds are some of the most unique in the world, though each species has its own special characteristics.
Flamingo Characteristics and Behaviors
Flamingos are so distinct; it doesn't take a birder to know when a bird is a flamingo. But what makes these birds so unique and different?
Flamingos are all members of the Phoenicopteridae bird family, and they are the only birds that belong to that family. Their closest relatives are ibises and spoonbills, but they are also related to ducks, geese, grebes, and even doves and sandgrouse.
These birds are characterized by very long, thin necks as well as long, thin legs. Their heads are relatively small, but their bills are large, heavy, and have a distinctive crook or break. Young flamingos have straight bills, but the break develops as they mature.
These are wading birds, and are always found around water sources. Though flamingos can swim quite well, they are more likely to walk through water as they feed, bending their necks downward to reach the water. While feeding, they strain water through the lamellae in their bills to filter out insects, brine shrimp, algae, and other food.
Flamingos are one of the few types of birds that feed their young hatchlings crop milk. While not the same as milk produced from mammary glands like mammals, crop milk is a highly nutritious substance that nourishes very young flamingos before they begin to feed themselves. Pigeons, doves, and some penguins also produce crop milk for their chicks.
Why Are Flamingos Pink?
Flamingos are known for their pink plumage, but not all flamingos are pink. The pink coloration comes from carotenoid pigments in the birds' diet. When flamingos have a diet lacking those pigments, the birds will be gray or white instead. Depending on what these birds eat, they may also have orange feathers, and many flamingos have some black on their wings.
Other Birds That Look Like Flamingos
There are several birds that look similar to flamingos, and birders who can better distinguish between them will never be confused about which bird is which. Flamingos are not:
- Spoonbills: While spoonbills, such as the roseate spoonbill, may be pink, they have a much longer bill with a flattened, scoop-like tip. Spoonbills are generally shorter than flamingos, and their necks are slightly thicker.
- Ibises: Ibises are much smaller than flamingos, with shorter legs. Their bills are much thinner and longer, with a slight downward curve rather than an abrupt break. Ibises are not pink, though the scarlet ibis can be a bright red and may appear pink if its diet does not contain enough pigments to colorize its plumage.
- Storks: Storks are distinctive wading birds, and some storks do have some pink in their plumage, but they are not as pink as flamingos. A stork's bill is much longer and heavier than a flamingo's, and many storks have bare skin on their heads, while flamingos are fully feathered.
- Cranes: Some crane species can be as tall as flamingos, and they have similarly thin legs and necks. Cranes have smaller bills, however, and while they are wading birds, they are not found exclusively near water like flamingos are.
- Herons: Large herons and egrets are wading birds similar to flamingos, but they do not have pink plumage. Their bills are stout and straight, without the distinct crook that marks a flamingo's bill. They also hunt differently, stabbing at their prey rather than filtering through the water like a flamingo will.
Types of Flamingo
While there are six distinctly recognized flamingo species today, there are at least ten flamingo species believed already to be extinct. Great conservation measures and dedicated effort to protect flamingos will be necessary to ensure these birds continue to survive even as they face stronger threats, including habitat loss, pollution, and invasive predators. As more genetic research is conducted, several of today's modern flamingo species may be split into different species, but that will mean significantly smaller and thus more vulnerable populations of individual species.
- American (Caribbean) Flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber)
- Andean Flamingo* (Phoenicoparrus andinus)
- Chilean Flamingo* (Phoenicopterus chilensis)
- Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus)
- Lesser Flamingo* (Phoeniconaias minor)
- Puna (James's) Flamingo* (Phoenicoparrus jamesi)
* Considered threatened or vulnerable due to population decreases and growing survival threats (Classifications by BirdLife International)