Why are those slender, long-necked, spindly-legged birds called flamingos such a lovely shade of pink? It is believed that microscopic algae called spirulina that form the major part of the bird’s diet, gives flamingos their characteristic color. Called beta-carotene, the substance is also found in shrimps and other water creatures that the flamingos eat. If flamingos are deprived of this diet, they become literally off-color!
Flamingos are a species of large water bird, around 1-2m in height, with a bill that is specially built for filter-feeding. The bill is bent in the middle. The lower half is large and deep while the upper half is a small and lid-shaped. There are fine hairs lining the insides, which act like a sieve. The bird’s tongue pumps the water in and out. The bill effectiently removes only the edible plant and animal matter while throwing out the water.
Flamingos, of which there are two main species, the Greater and Lesser Flamingo, live together in enormous flocks, a truly wonderful sight. They are found all over the world, except in Australia. They prefer alkaline takes, like those in East Africa’s Rift Valley and the vast salt flats of the Rann of Kutch on the Gujarat coast in India, where more than three million birds may nest at a time. Though they prefer hot, dry regions, some species are also found on the freezing alkaline and saline lakes of the Andes mountains.
In fact, flamingos thrive in one of the most inhospitable environments on Earth. For instance, Tanzania’s Lake Natron is a ‘soda’ lake, a hell-hole of hot, stinking, corrosive water and mud. Despite this, a million flamingos breed on a lake.
Their courtship displays are long and elaborate and may go for weeks together. They build their nests on 30 cm-high mounds of soft mud, hollowing out and removing about 25kg of soil to do so. When baked hard in the hot sun, the nests resemble mini-volcanoes.