With their tall legs, eye-catching plumage and bright pink beaks, flamingos always stand out from the crowd. Did you know their biology and behaviour are just as extraordinary as their appearance? By Arnold Ras

According to Mark Anderson, CEO of BirdLife South Africa, flamingos occupy unique habitats – saline lakes and pans. In fact, they make their homes in some of the most inhospitable environments in the world, including the extremely hot and soda lakes in the Great Rift Valley in East Africa. “Few other animals use these environments. Flamingos deposit organic material into the water of these wetland habitats, probably making the environments suitable for aquatic invertebrates.”

Although flamingos are not common in South Africa’s larger conservation areas, they are present at West Coast National Park, De Hoop Nature Reserve, St. Lucia and many other coastal estuaries. For bird lovers who want to see several hundred or even thousands of flamingos, Mark recommends Kamfers Dam (near Kimberley), the pans around Welkom, and the pans in the Chrissiesmeer area.

Unfortunately, both greater (Phoenicopterus roseus) and lesser flamingos (Phoenicopterus minor) are listed as near-threatened in The 2015 Eskom Red Data Book of Birds. Next time you come across these birds, appreciate their rarity and consider these interesting flamingo facts.

Flying beauty

Did you know that flamingos only migrate at night and can fly at speeds of up to 60Km/h? Not too bad for such pretty and elegant birds! When the sun sets, flamingos generally commute from one wetland to another and can easily cover distances of 600km in a single night.

Time to eat!

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Mark explains that flamingos feed on micro-organisms, such as blue-green algae and crustaceans, similar to the baleen whale. Those oddly shaped bills are uniquely designed for filter-feeding. To make matters even more interesting, the bill is shaped the way it is because it is used upside-down. Lesser and greater flamingos have distinctly different diets – greater flamingos prefer bigger food items while lesser flamingos are specialist fine algae feeders.

Social behaviour

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Greater flamingos are highly social and nest in large and dense colonies. These colonies can comprise of up to 200,000 pairs. Talking about a crowded house! Coming across flamingos, be on the lookout for their group courtship displays – the spectacular exercise involves synchronised wing-raising, ritualised preening and ‘head-flagging’ (raising their necks and beaks and turning their heads from side to side).

Pink and pretty

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Eat too many carrots and you might turn orange… Fiction for humans, but fact for flamingos – although carrots are not quite to blame. Due to the presence of certain carotenoid pigments in their main food sources – algae and crustaceans – their plumage turns pink.

Sink or swim?

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Yes, flamingos can indeed swim. When feeding in deeper waters, their long legs prove especially handy as they keep the body afloat. The flexible neck is able to twist and turn in all directions to maintain an upside-down feeding posture.

Wild member Evelyn Joubert photographed these greater flamingos just northwest of Port Elizabeth. “Flamingos are such elegant birds,” she says. “The fact that my husband is a pilot with a great love for anything and everything with slender wings, greatly fuelled my love for bird photography.”

Evelyn, who lives on a farm in the Witwatersberg Mountains, tells Wild she was bitten by the bird photography bug after a blue waxbill caught her eye one day. “After that day I snapped 130 bird species within six months.”

“With two very impatient teens in the car, I had only a few moments to photograph these flamingos. I used a Nikon D7000 camera with a Nikon 80-400mm lens. Using a tripod is of course essential, but time was of the essence.”

Additional sources: Beat About the Bush: Birds by Trevor Carnaby; http://www.arkive.org/greater-flamingo/phoenicopterus-roseus/