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Sunday, January 17, 2010

The elegant American flamingo--immortalized in plastic the world over, little known and understood.

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).

As an example of why you really can't trust the Internet for information, here's a bit from the Wikipedia writeup:

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.


"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."

How neat to see this series of posts come full circle! For a long time I had a lot of reservations about zoos in general, in spite of living nearby one of the pretty good 'uns (the National Zoo in DC.) I don't oppose them with the vehemence (and ignorance) of my obnoxious PETA-espousing youth, but it's still kind of melancholy to see creatures like tigers and elephants, which normally require so much space, confined to small pens (regardless of how "enriched" their enclosures may be.) Like you said, there's no substitute for observing an animal in its natural habitat, doing its wild beastie thing. A potted violet will never be as exciting and magical as one found on a walk in the woods.

Rambling aside, I do hope you get to visit the flamingoes in their native habitat again in the near future, but in the meantime, these pictures are gorgeous. Love the shots of their one-legged sleeping postures--don't they look kind of like truffula trees?

"Maybe they "brood over their young" until they reach sexual maturity. I certainly can get behind that." Ah, me. With my male offspring now young adults, I do more brooding than I did when they were babies!

An interesting and very informative post today, inflected with just the right amount of humor and personality. The photos are exceptional, like the bird! Thank you so very much.

I love regular old flamingos, they're beautiful. But Lesser Flamingoes? WOW!

And I thought I was the only one with those photos baby Flamingos wearing anklets seared in my brain forever. To this day when I see a flamingo those images still pop into my brain.

Thanks for sharing.

As always, beautiful pics of beautiful birds! As you know, I don't know much about birds...don't spend much time at any of our bird exhibits...BUT...I ALWAYS spend time at the flamingo exhibit on my way to the African Forest Region. I am totally in love with these lovelies! SO glad you brought your camera to the zoo with you that day!

Sue Roberts

Posted by Anonymous January 17, 2010 at 3:39 PM

I never see a flamingo without thinking of Alice using one for a croquet mallet and walking about with it tucked under her arm.

Is that not the most perfect shade of coral you have ever seen? I have a dress in just about that shade, embroidered on the hem with dragonflies. It...satisfies me.

Julie, I learned something new from your post. Nice pictures and your article was a good read. Thanks!

You may want to delete that Chinese comment above; it's full of hyperlinks to soft porn. I've seen a bunch of these before, got one on my own blog. They seem to be proliferating. There must be a human behind it. How else would they get through the CAPTCHA test?

Adding to my comment on porn spam above: there is a discussion of it on the Blogger help forum which tells you how to limit access to spammers. You can search for it under Chinese comment spam. It also explains how it gets through the CAPTCHA test.

Some time I'd like you to expound on why tropical things (like shirts) are so colorful and why things fade out (like Norwegians) as they get closer to the poles. I can think of a number of good reasons, but I'm sure there's a lot more to it. I hadn't thought of the food source, for instance. Although I do know that wild salmon is pink and farm salmon needs to be dyed like margarine. Am I rambling?

Amen to that, Julie. Such beautiful birds.

Please, feel free to pay me a visit and find something about the Iberian Lynx.

Wow, I would LOVE to see flamingos in the wild. Thanks for the awesome pictures and great facts about these wonderful birds.

Posted by Anonymous January 19, 2010 at 8:28 AM

Wow! The color is breathtaking. The flamingos I saw in East Africa were more of a "barbie" pink! I hate to say that I can no longer remember if I saw them at Lake Manyara or in the Ngorongoro Crater--both in Tanzania. I have a series of photos that show us driving to them from far off and they appear as a pale pink ribbon. Then getting pretty up close and personal with them. One of the things I remember so clearly was the SMELL! I usually have a pretty high tolerance for animal smells but this one almost did me in.

Having shrimp ceviche,watching wild flamingoes eat shrimp? -pretty much a perfect moment! I saw them in Cuba, and couldn't quite believe my eyes, as I'd only ever seen them in flocks of 40 or 50 on snow covered lawns in Canada before. It was truly thrilling to see the real bird!

Oh my - love this! I've seen many flamingoes but never in the wild. I grew up in Hawaii and there were flamingoes at the resorts - like pets I think - because they are not native. But the last pictures ... gathering and flying in the wild. Tears in my eyes for such unfettered beauty. Julie - if you have not already, try to listen to the song "Wonder of Birds" by the Innocence Mission. It might make you smile.

Love this blog!!

Fascinating report! I'm so used to seeing flamingos as captive zoo mascots it's hard to imagine them in their natural, intended place in the world. You are lucky you got to see them in the wild; what a refreshing perspective that must have been! Thanks for sharing.

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