Flamingos are possibly the most eye-catching of all birds.
Their colorful plumage, their long legs and sinuous necks, and their distinctive smile make them among the most photogenic members of the Animal Kingdom.
All physical features that catch our attention when we look at flamingos, it turns out, have an important role in how flamingos find food in improbable places.
Flamingos Are Picky Eaters
Flamingos eat foods you have probably never seen. One of the reasons you haven’t ever seen the favorite foods of flamingos is that many of them are microscopic.
Flamingos strain them out of the water in which they forage through special membranes we’ll discuss in more detail a little later in this article.
What kinds of foods do flamingos eat?
As we will discuss in more detail later in this article, different flamingos specialize in different aquatic foods, but the following foods are common to almost all flamingos around the world:
Diatoms are single-celled plants that live in tiny houses made of glass. They are the only organism that generates a glass shell to protect itself from even smaller predatory organisms.
The rough exteriors of diatoms help flamingos digest larger food items.
Diatoms are, surprisingly, a good source of healthy fatty acids for flamingos and other animals that feed on them.
Blue-green algae don’t have the glass exteriors of diatoms, so they thrive in shallow, calm water where they are least likely to be disturbed — the kind of water flamingos prefer for food foraging.
They are a rich source of colorful pigments, red and orange in addition to green and blue, that protect growing cells in the flamingo’s body and give color to its feathers.
Brine shrimp are tiny crustaceans that don’t live in the open ocean but thrive in salty waters inland.
They are just the right size for some flamingos to catch easily and make a large part of some flamingo species diets.
Flamingos eat lots of flies, but not the flies you see flying through the air. Flamingos specialize in eating the pupae and larvae of freshly hatched flies floating in still water.
If a fish happened to swim into a flamingo’s bill, the flamingo would eat it, but flamingos mostly eat foods we aren’t even aware of.
Their odd choices of cuisine reflect the unique anatomy that makes them the beautiful creatures we love to watch.
Flamingo’s Unique Anatomy Relates to the Flamingo’s Unique Diet
Flamingos feed on the various tiny creatures that live in shallow pools of fresh and salty water.
Everything about their anatomy relates to catching food.
The flamingo’s long legs help it stir up sediments to release edible microorganisms
Flamingos have long legs. They can easily stand on one leg without having any problems with balance for hours at a time. That leaves one leg free for food foraging.
Flamingos use their long legs and webbed feet to wade into marshes and estuaries where sediment accumulates just one to three feet (up to about a meter) below the surface.
They stir up the bottom of these shallow bodies of water to bring up edible microorganisms. But how does that help flamingos find their food?
The flamingo’s beak is designed to strain water to remove tiny particles of food
A flamingo’s distinctive “smile” is actually a downward hooked beak that looks like a smile when the bird has its head upside down looking for food.
The upper mandible, the bird’s upper “bill” is lined with a series of plate-like structures known as lamellae.
There are an additional two rows of lamellae inside both the upper and lower mandibles.
These straining plates separate particles of different sizes from the water the flamingo runs through its bill while it has its head beneath the surface of the lagoon.
The flamingo’s respiratory system enables it to hold its breath to catch every last morsel of food
While a flamingo is feeding with its head beneath the surface of the water, it has to hold its breath.
The flamingo’s long neck enables it to store over four times as much air in its throat and lungs as would be possible with lungs alone.
Flamingos don’t just have a greater ability to hold their breath than land animals.
They also are better at holding their breath than other birds. They have 330 rings of cartilage around their necks that allow their trachea to expand to hold a large volume of air so they do not have to come up to breathe for several minutes at a time.
The increased length of the trachea also allows it to cool off by taking shallow breaths without causing carbon dioxide levels to rise in its bloodstream.
The flamingo’s ability to stand on one leg enables it to feed in cold water
If you were to watch flamingos all day during a cool spell (relatively cool, since they live in tropical climates), you would probably observe that they stand on one leg in the morning and then stand on two legs as the sun comes out.
The ability to stand on one leg helps the flamingo conserve its body heat so it can forage for food when air temperatures are uncomfortably low. A flamingo’s bare legs are the least cold-resistant part of its body.
The ability to stand on one leg helps it stay warm while it gets more hunting time during the cooler times of the day.
A flamingo’s immune system is adapting for feeding
Murky pools of shallow water don’t just hold food for flamingos. They can also contain parasites.
A flamingo’s immune system will generate more white blood cells to fight off infections when it feeds in waters that have parasites.
A flamingo’s stomach adjusts the way it processes protein to deal with saltwater
Flamingos that feed in estuaries and brackish coastal waters take in a lot of salt with their food. They excrete the salt in their tears, but their eyes don’t make these tears all the time.
When a flamingo feeds in salty water, its digestive tract extracts up to 10 times as much of the amino acid taurine (the main ingredient in beverages for people like Red Bull), causing salt to go out the tear glands in the eyes instead of lingering in the bird’s bloodstream.
Even a flamingo’s distinctive feathers are related to the food it eats
Flamingos really are what they eat. Until they are about two years old, flamingo chicks and young flamingos are gray.
But as these birds eat more and more tiny shrimp that contain a pink pigment called canthaxanthin from algae and tiny shrimp, their feathers take on the beautiful, distinct color that we all associate with the bird.
OK, now we know how flamingos eat and how it affects their diets in the wild. Now let’s take a look at what flamingos eat.
Not all flamingos eat the same foods
The specific underwater creatures a flamingo eats depend on the shape of its bill.
Some flamingos have shallow-keeled bills that are great for scooping up larger food items but not so great for straining the water for tiny edible food like diatoms and algae.
Other flamingos have deep-keeled bills that hold more water than the flamingo’s lamellae can strain for food.
Here are the main differences in the types of flamingos and how they feed:
- Greater flamingos, Caribbean flamingos (which are also known as American flamingos), and Chilean flamingos have shallow-keeled bills and feed on insects and small fish. Caribbean flamingos specialize in feeding on the pupae and larvae of brine shrimp and flies.
- Andean flamingos, James’ flamingos, and Lesser Flamingos have deep-keeled bills and mostly feed on algae and diatoms.
The bigger the flamingo, the more it needs to eat, but the more slowly it moves its bill to catch its food.
Lesser flamingos flick their beaks up to 20 times a second all day long to capture just 60 grams (2.1 ounces) of food (if you take the water out of the measurement) a day to sustain their bodies.
Greater flamingos, like those in southern Louisiana and Florida, move their beaks from side to side just four or five times a second all day to extract 270 grams (9.5 ounces) of food every day (measured in terms of dry weight).
It’s a lot easier to catch algae and diatoms with a deep bill than it is to catch bugs and fish with a small bill. But all kinds of flamingos play an important role in regulating the ecosystems in which they live.
All kinds of flamingos seek out freshwater for drinking.
They swallow a lot of saltwater when they feed in brackish or salty pools, but they don’t drink salty water for their fluid requirements.
The availability of favorite foods determines the intensity of a flamingo’s feathers
If you take a closer look at different kinds of flamingos, you will notice that some flamingos have intensely red or orange feathers and others tend to have feathers that are pale pink.
American flamingos eat lots of shrimp and crayfish. These tiny crustaceans are packed with pink and red pigments that eventually accumulate in the bird’s feathers.
The greater flamingos of Africa and Southern Europe feed on ponds that are prone to drought. It’s easier for algae and diatoms to survive extended drought than it is for brine shrimp.
Since these big birds feed mostly on algae, their feathers don’t attain the bright colors found in North American and Caribbean birds.
Generally speaking, it’s harder for the flamingos with the brightest feathers to find the food they need to survive. That’s because of the shape of their bills.
The North American flamingos are a good example of this principle. If you drive past the rice fields of southeastern Texas or the bayous of southern Louisiana or the vast marshes of South Florida, there’s one thing you can’t fail to notice:
These areas have a lot of bugs. They also have wild flamingos.
American flamingos, however, can be malnourished despite the fact they live in the middle of an all-you-can-eat buffet of insects.
That’s because their bills make catching insects like midges and fly difficult. It takes them a lot longer to catch a tiny fly than to catch a just-hatched brine shrimp. When flamingos have to work too hard to catch too little food, they may take a flight to find better places to forage.
How do bird parents feed baby flamingos?
There’s just one more food that every flamingo eats in the early months of its life. That’s milk.
Flamingos do not, of course, breastfeed their chicks. But their upper stomachs do produce pinkish, reddish milk that both the mother and the father regurgitate to feed their chick.
The canthaxanthin and similar pigments in shrimp and snails are potent antioxidants. They protect the growing bird’s body against excessive inflammation. They help it metabolize its food.
But the chick’s body will build up a store of protective pigments in its fat cells for up to two years before the colorful pigments appear in its feathers.
There’s just one more thing you need to know about feeding flamingos. Zookeepers report sad results from trying to feed flamingos “normal” bird food like suet. Fatty foods can clog a flamingo’s beak so it cannot feed on the healthy foods it needs.
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