Doesn’t this burst of spring-like weather make you wish you could be on a tropical island? This week I escaped to the tropics to find one of my favorite birds: the flamingo.
Flamingos are famous for their bright plumage. The color of this bird’s feathers actually comes from its diet. Thanks to its long legs, the flamingo can wade into water much deeper than most other birds and find the food it likes to eat, such as algae, insects and crustaceans. The pigments in these meals give the flamingos’ feathers various colors of pink, red and orange.
Thanks to their long legs and necks, flamingos can wade into deep water to fish around for something to eat.
The six species of flamingos live in a variety of climates but are usually found near shallow lakes and lagoons in Africa, Asia, South America, Europe, the Galapagos Islands, the Caribbean Islands, the Yukatan Peninsula and the Florida Keys. The flamingo is a social bird, meaning it lives in groups instead of alone. Flamingo flocks may have just a handful of birds or tens of thousands of birds. In East Africa, flamingo flocks have been known to reach one million birds!
Flamingos often flock together in hundreds, sometimes thousands. In Africa, flocks may have as many as one million birds. (Photo Credit: Steve Garbie)
We have three of the six flamingo species living here at the Fort Worth Zoo: Chilean flamingos, lesser flamingos and American flamingos (also known as Caribbean flamingos). In 2005, all three species successfully bred and produced offspring for the first time in the same year. The Zoo celebrated another flamingo-filled year in 2011 with American and lesser flamingo hatchings. Seven American flamingo chicks hatched. The Zoo was especially proud of its lesser flamingo breeding success. Since 2002, the Fort Worth Zoo has been the No. 1 lesser flamingo breeding facility in the world. In 2010, the Zoo hatched 21 lesser flamingo chicks. In 2011, another 21 flamingos hatched. In comparison, the two other lesser flamingo breeding facilities in the country were only able to produce one chick each in 2011.
The Fort Worth Zoo is the top lesser flamingo breeding facility in the world.
Captive breeding programs are an example of how humans can be a catalyst for positive change. With our help, wildlife can breed in a safe and managed environment. Captive breeding takes away threats like predators and bad weather so the animals have a better chance at successfully breeding than they might have in the wild.
Captive breeding programs, like our flamingo program at the Fort Worth Zoo, allow animals to breed and reproduce in a safe environment free from threats they would otherwise come across in the wild.
While flamingos are flourishing here at the Fort Worth Zoo, we’re keeping an eye out to make sure that they stay safe in their wild habitats, too.
When you imagine a flamingo, you probably picture the Caribbean flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber). This species has the brightest coloring of all flamingo species. As its name suggests, the Caribbean flamingo lives in the Caribbean. Most of its habitats are salt lakes, sandy islands and swamps on the islands of Cuba, the Bahamas, Yucatan, Bonaire and the Turks and Caicos.
The Caribbean flamingo is the most brightly colored of the six flamingo species.
Back in 2009 and again in 2010, Fort Worth Zoo staff traveled to the Turks and Caicos Islands to do a survey of the flamingo population. These islands were once a popular flamingo breeding and nesting spot. However, feral dogs have become a threat, especially to flamingo chicks. Each flamingo breeding pair produces just one egg. At the age of 10 days, the chicks from the flock come together to form a group called a crèche. The parents share the duties of caring for the crèche, but the young chicks are extremely vulnerable to predators.
Zoo staff performed the surveys at Lake Catherine on the island of West Caicos. This island has an area of just 9 square miles and is relatively undisturbed by humans. It is ideal for flamingo nesting due to the absence of large predators. Lake Catherine is an inland saltwater lake that has been claimed as a nature preserve, keeping it safe from further disturbances. Zoo staff concluded that the lake is being used for feeding and roosting by a group of Caribbean flamingos believed to be migrating from a large nesting site on the island of Anauga. In 2009, staff located more than 100 birds. In 2010, there were 75 to 80. No active nests were found, but the biologists did find areas for possible nesting.
The Chilean flamingo (Phoenicopterus chilensis) lives farther south than its Caribbean cousin. This flamingo has pale pink feathers – so pale that they almost look white. Named for the area where it lives, the Chilean flamingo can be found in Chile as well as other countries located in southwest South America including Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Paraguay and Uruguay. Chilean flamingos may live on the coast or far inland and can survive in a variety of altitudes and temperatures. The hardy birds can endure winter nights as cold as
-22° F (-30° C) around hot springs, which keep the water from freezing. These lakes are usually inhospitable to all living creatures except for algae, aquatic invertebrates and, of course, flamingos.
The Chilean flamingo is a true survivor and can live in extremely harsh conditions. (Photo Credit: Kitt Amaritnant)
Studies show that Chilean flamingo populations are declining. This species is listed as near threatened on the International Union of the Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. In February 2010, a catastrophic earthquake shook Chile. After the quake, the Chilean National Zoo sounded the alarm that it needed help funding its flamingo program. The Fort Worth Zoo responded by donating to the Chilean National Zoo, which is breeding Chilean flamingos in captivity and reintroducing them into the wild. Biologists continue to monitor the reintroduced flamingos to help keep them safe and track their movements.
Monitoring the Chilean flamingo populations is important. All three species of flamingo found in the Altiplano are experiencing a drop in numbers and need to be closely watched. Learning where these birds travel to feed and to breed is crucial to protecting them.
Though no flamingo species is endangered as of now, three species are listed as near threatened and one is listed as vulnerable. Some possible threats that may be leading to declines in these flamingo species are habitat alteration, egg collecting and hunting. An important lesson to remember is that conservation isn’t meant to just save endangered species, it’s meant to regulate healthy species, too, so they don’t get into trouble in the future.
Learn more about flamingos when you visit Flamingo Bay at the Fort Worth Zoo.
What can you do to help keep flamingos safe? The best answer is to help protect wetland habitats.
- Conserve water. Flamingos need water in their habitat, so don’t be greedy and take too much water for yourself. Leave some for the flamingos, too!
- Never litter! Anything big or small that gets dropped into nature will eventually make its way into a body of water. This hurts all species of aquatic wildlife.
- See wetland habitats for yourself at the Fort Worth Nature Center.
- Take care of your pets. Dispose of droppings so they don’t wash away into water bodies. Also, get pets spayed or neutered so they don’t add to the feral population.
- Celebrate American Wetlands month in May and spread the word about protecting wetlands.
- Support programs that support flamingos, such as Bird Life International’s “Think Pink” campaign to save flamingos in Africa.
Don’t forget to send your conservation pictures and stories to me at Sam’s Inbox (firstname.lastname@example.org). Until next time … happy exploring!
Absence: (noun) the state of being away or not presentAquatic: (adjective) living or growing in water
Active: (adjective) having action, movement or in use
Algae: (noun) rootless, leafless plants living in water
Altitude: (noun) the height of something, usually with sea level as a starting point
Altiplano: (noun) Spanish for “high plain,” this area in west-central South America is a piece of flat land at a high elevation (also called a plateau).
Area: (noun) a mathematical measurement that describes the entire amount of space within a set of boundaries
Breed: (verb) to produce offspring
Captive breeding program: (noun) the process of breeding animals in a human-controlled environment
Captivity: (noun) the condition of being held in a protected area under human care
Catalyst: (noun) something that begins or causes a reaction
Catastrophic: (adjective) disastrous, destructive
Climate: (noun) the typical weather conditions (such as temperature, precipitation and wind) in a region
Coast: (noun) seashore, an area of land next to an ocean or other large body of water
Conclude: (verb) to deduce, infer or decide based on reasoning
Crèche: (noun) a group of young animals that are cared for by a community of adult animals
Crucial: (adjective) extremely important
Crustacean: (noun) an aquatic animal covered with a hard shell or crust, such as lobster, shrimp, crab, etc.
Endangered: (adjective) at risk for extinction
Endure: (verb) to undergo or survive
Feral: (adjective) wild
Flock: (noun) a large group of animals that stick together as one
Flourish: (verb) to prosper or be successful, thrive
Fund: (verb) to provide money to pay for something
Habitat: (noun) the natural environment of an organism
Habitat alteration: (noun) change that takes place in a habitat caused by natural or human processes
Hardy: (adjective) strong, sturdy, physically fit
Ideal: (adjective) perfect or the best
Inhospitable: (adjective) not offering shelter or livable conditions
Invertebrate: (noun) an animal without a backbone
Manage: (verb) to take charge or care of
Mature: (verb) to grow and reach the point of full development
Monitor: (verb) to watch
Nature preserve: (noun) an area of protected land where wildlife can live without being disturbed
Offspring: (noun) children or young produced by parents
Pigment: (noun) a coloring matter or substance
Plumage: (noun) all the feathers covering a bird
Predator: (noun) an animal that lives by capturing and eating other animals
Regulate: (verb) to control or direct by rule
Relatively: (adverb) somewhat, to some extent
Roost: (verb) to settle or stay, often for the night, on a roost or perch
Social: (adjective) seeking or enjoying to be surrounded by others
Species: (noun) a group of individuals having some common characteristics or qualities
Survey: (noun) a formal inspection or examination performed in order to understand something’s value or condition
Threat: (noun) a warning of likely trouble
Threatened species: (noun) a species likely to become endangered if population trends continue
Tropical: (adjective) occurring in regions close to the equator that are characterized by warm temperatures and high levels of humidity
Variety: (noun) the state of having a lot of diversity or different options
Various: (adjective) of a variety, differing, miscellaneous
Vulnerable: (adjective) easily targeted, likely to be attacked, unprotected, exposed