BIG BIRD, PART 1: GALAPAGOS ROSY FLAMINGO

Last year on my safari trip to Kenya and Tanzania, I was a bit frustrated that we couldn’t get closer to a flock of brightly hued flamingoes even though my much beloved 600mm lens did provide a few tantalizing shots such as this one:

My expectations were not great for better results in the Galapagos.  The Rosy flamingo population  is quite small – approximately only 320-350 birds.  It is the world’s smallest flamingo population and is endangered, as the flamingos are threatened not only by climate occurrences like El Niño, but also by invasive species brought to the Galapagos by man such as rats, cats, and even pigs.

This group is fighting for survival.  In another great classic case of evolutionary adaption,  unlike others in the world where large numbers are needed for seasonal breeding, the Galapagos flamingos breed all year round.  Males and females are similarly colored, so the flamingoes have another striking way to initiate courtship – they dance:

More on the breeding rituals later, meanwhile back to the Galapagos where we are hiking along the mangroves and wetlands of Isabella Island (the largest one that looks like a seahorse):

The mangrove forest was lush and beautiful and I’ll talk more about the topography in a later post.  After hiking awhile through lush surroundings we noticed a clearing ahead and lo and behold this little fellow was right at our feet to greet us:

He was actually taking an afternoon nap. While not a baby, this flamingo is clearly not an adult.  Flamingo fascinating fact #1:   newly hatched chicks have grey or white down and a straight beak.  Although we can’t unfortunately see the beak in this pose, it is important, for the iconic curved upside-down beak doesn’t grow until the chicks are about two months old. Therefore the babies can’t yet filter the mud and silt from the small crustaceans that give their parents’ their pinkish hue due to a pigment called beta carotene.  The beta carotene also changes the chick’s eyes from grey to yellow.

So what do they eat?  Flamingo fascinating fact #2: both the male and female adult flamingo produce a “milk” in glands that line their upper digestive tract that they feed their babies until their filter-beak grows in.  The milk is very similar to mammal milk in its protein and fat content.

Flamingo fascinating fact #3:   adult flamingos can only eat with their heads upside down. Their beaks have thin, flat membranes that act as filters – similar to the baleen in a whale’s mouth.  The curvature of the beak allows the flamingo to sift through the water without having its eyes underwater.

Here’s  an adult in all it’s pink hued, curved beak, yellow eyed glory:

A very small colony of flamingoes lives in the saltwater march we hiked along, and although there aren’t many of them, their graceful beauty still makes a pretty picture:

In the wild, flamingos can live until they are 50 years old, they are monogamous and the females usually lays one egg at a time.

And now for flamingo fascinating fact #4:  they are masters at sitting on one leg.

Many birds sit on one leg, but it is a considerable feat for the flamingo as it not only has the longest neck but also the longest legs of any bird in comparison to its body size. Adults are up to 5 feet in length  with a wingspan of 55 to 65 inches. So how can it balance one spindly leg and actually sleep that way without falling over?

It appears that scientists have actually studies this phenomenon and have recently published a treatise in  the Royal Society Journal of Biology Letters. The mechanism that prevents the flamingo from falling to the ground is like a doorstop holding a door – the flamingo’s joints and ligaments fold down into the position which requires no energy output from the bird to stay in place.  In fact, sleeping flamingoes are actually more stable than when awake and standing on two feet.

I think flamingoes are way cool.

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