Jana worked in animal welfare with abused and unwanted pets. She loves sharing her hands-on experience regarding domestic and wild critters.
Flamboyant and Strange
They wear bright pink plumage and have odd beaks. Sure, let's throw in those strange knob-knees too. The way they look is not the only unusual thing about flamingos. Sometimes, they're not pink at all. These big birds also do jaw-dropping things, possess an odd biology and have lived on planet Earth for longer than most can even guess.
1. The Black Flamingo
A sight in Cyprus had several people thinking that something was wrong with their vision. Wading among a bunch of pink birds was a single black flamingo. Discovered in 2015, it had a charcoal-like body and white wing tips, which lend it the appearance of a male ostrich. This colour, which is believed to be some form of mutation, is so rare in flamingos that the Cyprus bird is believed to be the only black flamingo in the world.
2. They aren't Naturally Pink
Large water birds are sometimes clumsy when there's a sudden need to take off. Flamingos are awkward to begin with and have natural predators. For them, camouflage seems like a good idea but instead, flamingos advertise their drumsticks with neon — literally. Some are so bright, they make your eyes hurt.
The fact that they are a little too visible is not a genetic mistake. The iconic plumage is not present at birth, nor in the first few months. By nature, flamingos are greyish-white and gradually turn pink because of what they eat. Certain crustaceans and algae contain a reddish-orange pigment called beta carotene. That's right, the same stuff you find in carrots. Should a flamingo avoid these dyed foods, its pink would fade and eventually the bird turns white again.
Colours of the Flamingo Rainbow
3. They're Unbelievably Ancient
Few people spare a thought about where flamingos come from. How old are they? When was the first fossilized flamingo found? Way back in the Miocene era, a lake existed in modern-day Spain. The lake dried up and left behind limestone and fossils. Incredibly, one ancient discovery was a preserved nesting site. It contained five eggs laid around 18 million years ago and presented the first traces of the flamingo.
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However, the prehistoric flamingo was a little different. The adult responsible for the clutch was never found but the way it constructed the nest was unlike today's birds. Modern flamingos build mud towers for a single egg. The fossil nest, with its five eggs, was woven from sticks and leaves. The ancient eggs shared remarkable similarities to modern-day flamingos, but since the nest compared better to grebes, a living relative of flamingos, it could've belonged to a mutual ancestor.
4. The case of Flamingo 492
In 2003, an African flamingo arrived at the Sedgwick County Zoo. Two years later, it escaped with another flamingo. Tagged as 492 and 347, the latter was never seen again. Flamingo 492 has evaded capture ever since. More remarkably, it's managed to survive for over a decade. The latest sighting occurred in 2018, when the lone fugitive was spotted in Texas where it had settled down in a salty wetland. The bird was not the only foreign sight at the lake. Oddly, 492 had a fitting companion — a Caribbean flamingo. While nobody can say for sure how the unusual friend appeared, it most likely became lost after being separated from its flock because of a tropical storm.
5. A One-Legged Mystery
Ever since mankind first noticed pink flocks in lagoons everywhere, the question had been asked. Why do they stand on one leg? It's an inquiry that still baffles zoo keepers and researchers. This doesn't mean that the experts are clueless, though. Some suggestions include conserving energy and not falling prey to predators during sleep.
The energy theory has merit — with such long legs, the loss of heat would be substantial and some flamingos live in very cold places. Drawing one leg up against a warm, feathery chest cuts the heat loss in half. The predator theory doesn't seem solid at first. What on earth does standing on one leg have to do with a bird too busy sleeping to sense a crocodile cruised closer?
It turns out that flamingos share a trait with marine mammals, like whales and dolphins. To prevent drowning and attacks while sleeping, only one half of their brains enter true sleep. The other half keeps a watchful eye on the world. Researchers speculate that since flamingos also do this, tucking away one leg might be a reflex connected with the sleeping half of the brain. A third theory is more simple — flamingos do it because it's comfortable.
There are many more remarkable facts about flamingos. The next time you see one at the zoo (or you're lucky enough to spot some in the wild), lend a hat tip to a truly weird and wonderful bird. After all, one would have to look far and wide to find another creature that dyes itself pink, lived for millions of years and sports a beak only a mother could love.
© 2018 Jana Louise Smit