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As well as its elongated neck and long, slim legs, perhaps the most distinctive feature of flamingos is their pink plumage. Even the species’ name is believed to derive from the Spanish word ‘Flamengo’ meaning ‘flame’, echoing their strikingly colorful feathers.
However, when a baby flamingo first hatches from its egg, it is, in fact, a pale gray fluffy bundle that emerges, rather than the hot pink we associate with these graceful tropical waders. Read on to learn more about how flamingos get their instantly recognizable color.
One commonly offered reason for Flamingos being so fabulously pink lies in their diet, rather than their DNA. Known to have a diet rich in crustaceans, is it simply that a flamingo’s feathers take their color from the pinkish-orange shrimps they are known to be particularly fond of?
Well, not exactly. Shrimps get their color from feeding on algae rich in carotenoid pigments, which causes both the shrimps and the flamingos that eat them to be pink in color. Flamingos fed on algae and shrimps lacking this pigment would remain pure white.
A Lesser Flamingo - One commonly offered reason for Flamingos being so fabulously pink lies in their diet, rather than their DNA
From pure white Swans and Egrets to jet-black Crows, and Ravens, bird species exist with plumages that encompass the whole color spectrum, including the Scarlet Ibis, yellow Canaries and bright green Parakeets.
A large number of birds have cryptic markings, which allow them to subtly blend into their woodland habitats or remain hidden against shrubbery and hedgerows. The shocking pink plumage of Flamingos is anything but subtle. Read on to learn more about how and why they have evolved with this unmistakable coloring.
Blue-green algae is a common food eaten by Flamingos as they wade in shallow water searching for food. This algae, rich in carotenoids, is also a common food of crustaceans such as shrimps, which are in turn, the main prey of Flamingos in the wild.
Carotenoids, including beta carotene and lutein, are pigments that are present in several bacteria, plants, fungi, and animals with yellow, orange and red coloring, for example in autumn leaves, carrots, grapefruits, corn and pumpkins.
Spirulina, a widespread algae in alkaline waters of lakes and ponds, has an extremely high concentration of beta-carotene. Its prominent role in the diet of flamingos (both directly and via shrimps) is what makes Flamingos the unmistakable color they are.
A Greater Flamingo - The shocking pink plumage of Flamingos is anything but subtle
You know the saying “You are what you eat”? Well, this is particularly true for Flamingos, which feed on pink-orange shrimps as a major component of their natural diet. However, in reality, it’s not quite as simple as this, with shrimps also relying on their own dietary factors to become pink themselves.
Read on to learn about the natural substances that synthesize to change the color of both shrimps and, in turn, Flamingos.
A Flamingo's primary diet is taken from the lagoons it wades through, sifting out algae, brine shrimp and other invertebrates with its broad, curved bill. The salty, alkaline waters that form the typical habitats of Famingos do not support many species, but algae and the crustaceans that feed on them thrive, making them ideal foraging grounds.
The microscopic blue-green algae that are present in these waters and ingested by both Flamingos and the crustaceans that make up the majority of their diet are packed with carotenoids, the pigment compounds that generate the pink-orange coloring of their plumage.
Enzymes in the Flamingos’ liver then break down these compounds into pink and orange pigment molecules, which are then carried to the feathers, legs and beaks of Flamingos, causing them to take on the familiar rosy pink appearance.
The color of a Flamingo’s plumage is heavily influenced by the availability and quality of food in its local environment. Ponds and pools with low numbers of crustaceans or lower levels of algae, do not contain a high enough density of carotenoids to produce deep pink hues, meaning that birds living and feeding in these environments are not as pink as those where algae and brine shrimp flourish.
A Lesser Flamingo - The color of a Flamingo’s plumage is heavily influenced by the availability and quality of food in its local environment
Flamingo chicks are not born pink but are instead a pale whitish gray for their initial stages of life. Keep reading to learn just how and when young flamingos acquire their signature pink feathers.
On hatching, a flamingo chick is a far cry from the long-legged silhouette known around the world as a symbol of poise and grace. Flamingo chicks begin life covered in gray-white down and have a straight red bill and swollen red legs. They are not particularly mobile in the early days after hatching and are certainly not capable of the famous one-legged pose without a huge amount of practice.
By seven to ten days, a flamingo chick’s legs and bill will have turned black, but there’s still a long way to go before they look like a ‘proper’ Flamingo. During the early weeks of life, young Flamingos rely on their parents to feed them with crop milk, an intense process which leaves parent Flamingos a less vibrant shade of pink, due to the energy and resources they need to pass onto their offspring.
Juvenile Flamingos shed their initial down and molt into a gray plumage, as they master flight and hunting. As they grow and become more independent, foraging to meet their own dietary needs, their plumage also changes, with their maturity and ability to fend for themselves reflected in the pinkness they develop. By between one and two years of age, young Flamingos will become indistinguishable from adults, reaching their fully fledged ‘pinkness’.
An American Flamingo with its chick - Flamingo chicks begin life covered in gray-white down and have a straight red bill and swollen red legs
A juvenile American Flamingo - Juvenile Flamingos shed their initial down and molt into a gray plumage, as they master flight and hunting
The color of a Flamingo’s plumage may offer key information about its overall health and quality of habitat. Read on to learn more about how the pinkness of a Flamingo may indicate levels of nutrition, and fitness and how suitable their habitat is at supporting their dietary and health needs.
The intensity of the pink coloring of a Flamingo’s plumage is certainly influenced by its overall health and its daily diet. Flamingos that have poor nutrition and health issues will have less vibrant plumage, with duller, pale feathers. In contrast, healthy, fit Flamingos with a diet rich in foods with high concentrations of carotenoids will be brighter shades of pink.
During the breeding season, it’s not uncommon for dramatic changes in coloring to be evident, from the richest, brightest shades of fuchsia to displaying males attempting to attract a mate with their appearance.
While raising young, these colors can fade rapidly, as both parents’ resources and energy levels are depleted, from tasks such as egg-laying, incubating and feeding and caring for young. The plumage of new parents is often more whitish-gray than pink until their young reach independence and do not require so much looking after.
Interestingly, observations of Flamingo colonies in the wild suggest that the most dominant males in a colony are those with the richest, deepest pink plumage. Research also suggests that the pinkest Flamingos are also the most aggressive and competitive over food sources.
A Greater Flamingo nesting - While raising young, these colors can fade rapidly, as both parents’ resources and energy levels are depleted
There are six subspecies of Flamingo: the Greater Flamingo, Chilean Flamingo, Lesser Flamingo, Caribbean Flamingo (also known as the American Flamingo), Andean Flamingo and Puna Flamingo. Read on to learn more about whether all Flamingos are equally pink or if some are in fact pinker than others!
The natural plumage of Flamingos can range in color from pale pastel pink to a deep crimson and varies between species. The American, or Caribbean, Flamingo has the brightest plumage and was once known as the rosy Flamingo, to distinguish it from the much paler Greater Flamingo. American Flamingos have reddish outer wing coverts and their necks and tail feathers can be a deep scarlet. In contrast, the Andean Flamingo and the Lesser Flamingo are distinctly paler, with the Andean Flamingo’s plumage featuring a black wing patch.
The grade of the color of a Flamingo’s feathers is influenced by the availability of blue-green algae in their foraging grounds. Interestingly, the Flamingo species with the richest coloring are those that ingest larger amounts of algae directly, rather than gaining smaller quantities of carotenoids second-hand as a by-product of eating shrimps and other crustaceans that have eaten them first.
The American, or Caribbean, Flamingo has the brightest plumage and was once known as the rosy Flamingo
An Andean Flamingo - The grade of color of a Flamingo’s feathers is influenced by the availability of blue-green algae in their foraging grounds
Pink Flamingos are a striking symbol, recognized across the world as an emblem of summer, fun and relaxation, cropping up regularly as a design on garden decor, swimwear and pool inflatables. Photographs of Flamingo flocks in their natural habitats offer a stunning representation of one of the ultimate wonders of the natural world. Read on to learn more about the enduring appeal of these stunning pink shorebirds.
Flamingos have a somewhat diverse appeal in popular culture and the art world. The graceful poise of a flamingo, balancing effortlessly on one leg, symbolizes beauty and tranquility. In certain cultures, including many African countries, Flamingos in art represent serenity, adaptability and community. Their natural pinkness lends itself to being a symbol of fertility and motherhood, as well as one of simple, unparalleled beauty.
In other contexts, Flamingos have become something of a kitsch symbol of the 1950s or a retro pop art decoration, as an icon of fashion, design and popular culture. Plastic flamingo lawn ornaments gained immense popularity in the 1950s and 1960s, adding a touch of flamboyance and personality to hundreds of thousands of backyards across the United States.
The colorful image and tropical connotations of a flamingo make it an ideal emblem to represent vacations, relaxation and good times. Their exotic appearance, twinned with their association with coastal settings conjures up an image of summer fun.
An American Flamingo - The graceful poise of a flamingo, balancing effortlessly on one leg, symbolizes beauty and tranquility
A Flamingo’s plumage offers a direct indicator of the quality of its habitat, and fading pinks offer a clear sign of the decline of wetlands and pollution of foraging waters. Keep reading to discover more about the impacts of habitat loss on the coloring of flamingos as we know them.
Habitat loss is a major threat to the long-term survival of Flamingos, which require a specialized environment for breeding and feeding. Their primary dietary needs depend on the availability of saline water. When wetlands are lost or waters become polluted and the balance of the water’s pH levels is changed, these lakes and lagoons are no longer able to successfully support aquatic life, including crustaceans and extensive algae that flamingos depend on.
An algae bloom is an indicator of the declining quality of a pool or lake’s water, with excess levels of nitrogen and decreasing levels of oxygen needed to support the aquatic ecosystem. In polluted waters, flamingos are unable to ingest enough quality food to support good health, and this will begin to show in the color of their feathers.
Flamingos have an iconic status among birds, due to their unmistakable coloring and silhouette, their graceful way of walking and their shocking pink plumage, which makes them, unlike any other bird in the natural world.
Preserving the natural habitats of flamingos, including their access to their preferred foods and wetland foraging grounds is vital to not only promoting their health but to their continuing iconic presence in nature. If landscapes changed significantly, leading to the loss of algae-rich ponds, pink Flamingos as we know them, may become a thing of the past.
Three James's Flamingos - Habitat loss is a major threat to the long-term survival of Flamingos, which require a specialized environment for breeding and feeding
When fed on a diet lacking in carotenoids, a Flamingo will lose its pinkness until this pigment is restored to its food intake. When feeding young, the intense process of producing crop milk and delivering it to chicks can have a draining effect on Flamingo parents, quite literally. Until chicks become fully independent, it’s usual for parents to lose their bright pink hue, becoming pale and washed out, and even fully white.
When they hatch, baby Flamingos are gray, and look nothing like the hook-billed ballerina-esque pink waders we all recognize instantly. Developing full pinkness is a gradual process, with young chicks a mottled shade of gray and white when they hatch, gradually becoming a uniform gray as juvenile birds, and only becoming their signature hot pink hue when they are between one and two years old.
Diet plays a role in the coloring of several bird and animal species, including salmon, American Goldfinches, Cedar Waxwings and even Frilled Dragons. Once again, the pigments responsible are carotenoids, which are present in the diets of these species in varying forms.
American Goldfinches take their bright yellow feathers from seeds rich in carotenoids, while the tail feathers of Cedar Waxwings are also affected by the amount of red berries they eat, and can be variously orange, red or yellow.
If Flamingos in zoos are not fed their natural diet, it is possible for this to cause disruption to the amount of carotenoids they need in order to retain their trademark pink hue. Flamingos rely on pink brine shrimp as the main component of their diet in the wild, which in turn feed on blue-green algae, which contains the high concentration of carotenoids that are needed to maintain their bright pink feathers.
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