With cold weather pressing down on many of us and a general feeling of letdown at this time of year post-holidays when new year’s resolutions start to get more challenging or have already begun to fail, what better pick-me-up than a taste of the tropics? Hence this week’s featured bird, the bright and beautiful American flamingo!
Name: American Flamingo, Caribbean Flamingo
Scientific Name: Phoenicopterus ruber
Scientific Family: Phoenicopteridae (Flamingos)
Habitat: These flamingos prefer relatively shallow, open bodies of water such as lagoons, estuaries, swamps, mudflats, ponds and lakes, and can be found in both freshwater and brackish areas. Surface vegetation is generally minimal in the best habitats, and areas with rapidly moving water such as rivermouths are not generally suitable. These birds will occasionally be found on gentle beaches and in coastal habitats where the water is suitable and food is abundant.
Range: These are truly tropical birds and are found throughout the Caribbean, including the Bahamas and Cuba, as well as in northern coastal areas of South America, in the Galapagos and in the northern Yucatan peninsula. Limited numbers are also found in southern Florida.
With their ultra long, thin necks, strongly crooked bills, skinny legs and pinkish plumage, all flamingos are unmistakable, but it can be more challenging to determine which species is which. The American flamingo’s range is a great clue, as is its very vibrant orange-red-pink coloration (similar flamingo species are often less brilliant), though the color does vary significantly with diet and age (younger birds are much paler). The bill is pale at the base but black at the tip, and even the legs and feet are pinkish-gray, with stronger color at the joints. The eye is a pale yellow with a black pupil. Their primary feathers and the trailing edge of their wings are black, making a startling contrast in flight but those feathers are often completely hidden or only barely noticeable when the wings are folded.
Flamingos are the poster birds for wading. They stroll through shallow water searching for all types of food – algae, small fish, plankton, etc. – which they filter through their large bills. Flamingos can swim but are rarely seen doing so, and in flight they look gawky and awkward with their very long necks and legs stretched out. One of the most amazing sights of any flamingo, however, isn’t just one bird – though they’re a treasure to add to your life list – but a full flock. These are very social birds, and flocks can number thousands or tens of thousands of birds. They often feed with synchronous movements, creating a coordinated, graceful dance that mesmerizes birders and non-birders alike.
If you don’t quite have the time, budget or other resources for a tropical getaway to see your own American flamingo this winter, consider visiting a local zoo or aviary – flamingos are often favorite guests and they do well in captivity. It might not quite be the sunny escape we might so desire at this time of year, but seeing an American flamingo can always add a little tropical warmth to your day!