The Columbus Zoo's little colony of American (or Caribbean) flamingos bears evidence to their breeding success. It's dotted with dusky, particolored young birds.
Yaay! Breeding flamingos in Ohio seems like a little miracle to me, like growing some ridiculous orchid on my bedroom windowsill. But miracles can be done, given love and attention.
Captive flamingos won't breed unless there's a critical mass of birds. In the wild, breeding is irregular, and linked to water levels and rainfall. Flamingos the world over live in incredibly harsh environments, often on scorching alkaline lakes and pans where little else than the tiny crustaceans and shrimp they eat can survive. I have a searing memory of a National Geographic article from my childhood about people saving flamingo chicks from certain death by breaking off heavy anklets of soda that had formed on their legs. All these things fed into my desire to help birds...thanks, Dad, for faithfully subscribing to NG and feeding the flame (and filling the vast heavy boxes of past issues in the attic, which I revisited frequently).
Flamingos build a cool little volcano of mud, the only material at hand, to raise their single egg above the hot flat (and make it easier for the gangly birds to settle on the nest).
Like all flamingos, it lays a single chalky white egg on a mud mound, between May and August; incubation until hatching takes from 28 to 32 days; both parents brood the young for a period of up to 6 years when they reach sexual maturity. Their life expectancy of 40 years is one of the longest in birds.
Wow. Who knew that the adult flamingos sat on their chicks until they reach sexual maturity six years later? I sure didn't. Not sure what they mean by "brood," but in ornithoparlance, it means to sit on your young. Maybe they "brood over their young" until they reach sexual maturity. I certainly can get behind that.
Given that flamingos are able to feed themselves at two months of age, swinging their bent bills upside down and filtering crustaceans out of mud, being sat upon for six years seems excessive. Maybe everything you see in print ain't so. And about that life expectancy: Yes, flamingos can live 50 years in captivity, but wild life expectancy is not a lot past 25. Any bird that lays a single egg, whose reproductive success hinges on rainfall and water levels, had better live a long time in order to replace itself. And 25 years is a long time in the wild. With the Internet in general, and Wikipedia in particular, you get the information you pay for. Caveat emptor! Except, of course, on this blog. You can trust the Science Chimp. And if you catch her out, good for you. Leave a comment and she'll pant-hoot for a few minutes, fling things around, and then fix it.
Everything you read about flamingos states that their pink coloration derives from carotenoids in the shrimp and crustaceans they eat. In zoos, a simple food additive takes care of the problem. Avicultural nutrition has come a long way since my childhood, when zoo flamingos and spoonbills were whitish, and even the vivid scarlet ibis was a pallid salmon-pink. The Columbus flock is gloriously colorful, enhanced by the grayish youngsters that indicate its reproductive success.I love looking at the kinked vertebrae in those amazing necks.
There was a fair amount of posturing and honking going on when we visited. Male flamingos tower over females, reaching almost five feet in height. Yet that huge bird weighs in at around six pounds, all feathers and hollow bones. Yes, your sofa pillow of a kitty cat weighs more than a five-foot bull flamingo. Aren't birds the berries?
It's really a shame that most of us know flamingos only from captivity. Bill and I took a trip to the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico in 2005 that stands out in my mind as one of the last trips we took together just for its own sake. It wasn't a press trip; we both got to go together; our itinerary was our own, and we did it up right, driving from hotspot to hotspot, having some really singular experiences at Maya temples and coastal flats. We paid attention to the birds, the landscape, and to each other, nothing and no one else on the agenda. We ticked off endemic birds and ate tiny popcorn shrimp in heavenly ceviche right out from under the flamingos at Celestun. I wish we could travel like that again someday.
Shooting with a tiny pocket Olympus camera, I got these images:What a flight profile, like a flying pool cue.
And we waited for the flamingos to come into their roost at sunset, and it was absolutely unbelievable to see these crazy icons of the tropics alive and flapping and honking right overhead.
With the 300 mm. telephoto I've got now, I doubtless could have had some frame-filling shots. I'm thankful to be able to go to Columbus and see flamingos, but I'll never forget seeing them where they really belong.
Whenever you can, try to see birds and animals where they really belong. Seeing them where they don't belong is lovely, but seeing them free and open and wild changes your life.