Chilean Flamingos

 

Scientific name: Phoenicopterus chilensis

IUCN World Conservation Status: NEAR THREATENED

Height: 80 cm

Wingspan: 95 – 100 cm

Weight: approximately 2.5Kg

Flamingos are highly recognisable by their distinctive colourisation and interesting features. They feed with their bills upside-down, tipping their head into the water to filter food. During the breeding season, these birds display a variety of behaviours to attract mates including head flagging (swiveling their heads from side-to-side in tandem) and wing salutes, where the wings are repeatedly opened and closed. Flamingos can live to over 50 years old in the wild. Here at Harewood, some of our population have been in residence since 1970.

Where in the world

Native to coastal areas of western South America, mainly Chile, Bolivia and Argentina.

Threats in the wild

Plumage

Chilean flamingos can be distinguished from all other flamingos by their grey legs with pink knees and feet.

They have a pale pink body plumage with darker roseate streaks, pale yellow eyes and grey legs with pink knees and feet. Male and female flamingos are the same colour. When the parents are feeding their chicks, they lose some of the pink colour and get paler feathers.

Newly-hatched chicks are pure white, but as they get older they go greyer and eventually turn pink, as they moult and replace their feathers. Juveniles are greyish, taking approximately one to two years to obtain full adult coloration.

Feeding

Flamingo beaks are shaped with a bend just below the nostrils, so when the head is bent down into the water, the beak is the right angle to feed from the water surface and mud. The upper bill is thin and flat, and acts as a lid to the lower bill which is a larger trough or bowl shape. The lower bill of the Chilean flamingo is wide, so they can feed on shrimps and other mollusks in the water as well as insects, aquatic invertebrates, and small fish.

Rough ridges on the flamingo’s bill and a double row of bristles called lamellae, help filter food from the water, by acting like a sieve. The Chilean flamingo’s large, fleshy tongue is also covered with bristles to help filter water and food past the beaks bristles.

A flamingo’s pink or reddish feathers come from carotenoid pigments, including one called canthaxanthin. These are found in the algae and shrimp that the flamingo’s feed on, at Harewood the food contains carotenoid pigments to keep the flamingo’s pink. This pigment also keeps the legs and skin pink as well as the feathers.

How they collect food

Chilean flamingos feed by standing in shallow water, they bend down to the water so their head is upside down and their beak pointing towards their body. Chilean flamingos wave their head from side to side at the water level, or even under water in the mud, to sieve out food.

A flamingo filters its food out of the water and mud with a spiny, round tongue that sucks food-filled water through the bristles inside the curved bill. The bristles and ridges filter out food and water is squirted back out of the mouth into the lake. When feeding in the lake, you can often see the flamingos stamping up and down to stir up the mud and the insects that live in it. When the water is too deep, flamingos can swim at the surface, with their webbed feet propelling them along, and they can still feed while swimming along.

Flamingo senses

Flamingos have good hearing, calls are important and may be used to keep flocks together and for parents & chicks to recognise and find each other.

Flamingos can see colours, but seem to have poor night vision and can be easily startled at night.

At Harewood the flamingos recognize their uniformed keepers among visitors, often walking away from them and ignoring crowds of visitors. But distinctive regular visitors to Harewood may also start to be recognised.

The eyes are located on either side of the head, so they can see predators hunting them from behind; chicks have grey eyes which turn yellow as they get older.

Flamingos feel food with their tongues, but have a poorly developed sense of taste, and people think they have little or no sense of smell.

Fascinating facts

Eight of the original flamingo’s are still here at Harewood, they have been here for forty years, and we don’t know some of their ages, as they were caught from the wild.

They stand on one leg occasionally, this is thought to be for several reasons:

They only lay and sit on a single egg, but if the egg is damaged or lost they can lay several more to replace lost eggs.

People think their knees bend backwards, but that’s actually their ankle halfway up the leg. What we would think to call their ‘feet’ are in fact toes, with their knees hidden next to their body covered by feathers.

Because the flamingo’s live in ponds, marshes and lakes, they have long thin legs to wade in water, with webbed feet to walk on soft mud.

A newly hatched chick’s beak is straight, and then as it gets older, the curved bent beak shape the adults have, starts to develop.

In early Roman times, flamingo tongues were carefully prepared, pickled, and served as a delicacy.

The majority of lakes where flamingos live have extremely high concentrations of salt. Flamingos excrete excess salt through salt glands in their nostrils. The only source of fresh water for some of these birds comes from boiling geysers. They are capable of drinking water at temperatures that approach boiling point, and need to drink freshwater from these springs.