The greater flamingo inhabits tropical salt pans, lagoons and alkalinelakes. The skin on its feet and legs can withstand burning effects of caustic soda found in alkaline lakes. It breeds in huge colonies, over a million individuals.
The flamingo steps elegantly through shallow lakes and lagoons, sweeping its highly specialized bill from side to side to filter tiny food items from the water. The flamingo has legs that resist burning chemicals in some feeding waters and a special bill to trap tiny organisms. Edges and inner surfaces of its bill are lined with lamellae. Tiny organisms are trapped as the tongue is pushed forward and water is squeezed through the lamellae. The joint that looks like the knee is actually the ankle. This joint allows the long legs to bend at a pivotal point to make sitting in a nest as easy as possible. The feet have three main toes that are webbed to help spread the bird’s weight as it stands on soft mud and also act as paddles when the flamingo swims. When resting, the flamingo usually stands on one leg. This may help the flamingo control heat loss on cool days.
The flamingo inhabits lagoons, salt pans, and large, shallow lakes, from sea level to altitudes of over 9,900’. Conditions across its range are very harsh with high temperatures. The heat and salt stimulate the growth of plankton, algae, and aquatic invertebrates. Few animals could exploit such hostile waters but the flamingo is equipped to thrive.
The flamingo has a specialized system of feeding that is unique among birds. The bill is held upside down, facing backwards, and horizontal to the water surface. The tongue works like a piston, pumping water 5 to 6 times a second through the partly opened mandibles. Food items--algae, tiny crustaceans, mollusks, and aquatic insects--are filtered by a special comblike structure lining the bill and then are scooped off by the tongue to be swallowed. On alkaline lakes, the flamingo can only feed on the surface because its eyes would be burned by the powerful chemicals.
Often found in large groups, the flamingo gathers on shorelines of tropical lagoons and salt lakes where it can wade in the shallows on its long, stilt-like legs. Highly sociable, the flamingo’s communal nature extends to caring for young. When a chick fledges, it joins a nursery supervised by a few adults, allowing the other parent birds to feed.
Throughout its tropical and sub-tropical range, the flamingo breeds when food supplies are good and the water level is high enough to soften the shoreline mud from which it builds its nest. The height of the nest helps the leggy flamingo when incubating, as it can straddle the nest. Pairs defend the nest with threat postures, but fights among neighbors are rare. Several days before the chick hatches, it cheeps and the parents respond, learning to recognize each other’s calls. Then, after the chick hatches, the parents, returning from a feeding trip, are able to find it quickly among the hundreds of other identical nests in the colony.
Apart from the Caribbean where populations are hunted for food or sport, the flamingo is under little threat, partly because its harsh, remote habitat is not exploited by humans.