5 Ways Flamingos Could be the Most Extreme Birds on Earth

Think these pink birds are pushovers? Think again! Flamingos not only survive in harsh environments that would kill most animals – they thrive in them. “Their pink color and wobbly-looking legs can make people assume they’re dainty,” says Felicity Arengo, a flamingo researcher at the American Museum of Natural History. “But flamingos are actually much tougher than they look.” In fact, flamingos just might be the most extreme birds in the animal kingdom. Check out these five awesome adaptations to see why…

Where flamingos live

Where Flamingos Live
Where Flamingos Live

1 Flamingos legs have armour

Flamingos Legs Have Armour
Flamingos Legs Have Armour

Many of the world’s six flamingo species live in water that’s full of corrosive natural chemicals. Some wetlands – like Lake Natron in Tanzania, East Africa – are so alkaline that the water could strip off human skin! It can be a watery graveyard for many of the other birds that land there, and animals that perish in the lake are gradually mummified. But these rosy birds spend all day wading in the toxic water. So how do they manage to survive in such a hostile home? Well, their fragile-looking, stilt-like legs are covered in special armour – hundreds of hard scales on top of their thick, leathery skin.

“These plates are similar to your fingernails,” Felicity explains. “But they’re more flexible, like a reptile’s
scales.” And this amazing armour protects the flamingos when they’re in toxic waterways all over the world. Leg—cellent!

2 Flamingos have elaborate mouths

Flamingos Have Elaborate Mouths
Flamingos Have Elaborate Mouths

Flamingos can eat food that’s way too small for many other animals to eat, such as the algae, fly larvae and near-microscopic brine shrimp that live in their shallow, salt-water homes. Less competition means more food for flamingos. But eating these micro-meals requires several adaptations.

Like the ocean’s largest whales, flamingos are filter feeders. But instead of swimming for their dinner, they kick the mud where the food lives, dip their heads and slurp up their grub.

Unlike humans, both their lower and upper jaws move, allowing the birds to open and shut their mouths rapidly – as fast as 20 times a second – which pumps food-filled water inside their beaks. A short, comb-like
structure running along the edge of the beak keeps large particles out, while another strainer around the tongue captures the tasty tidbits.

“The filtering mechanism combined with the speed that these birds pump at involves some crazily elaborate physics,” Felicity says. “It’s really astounding to watch a flamingo feast!”

3 Flamingos can drink salt water

Flamingos Drinking Hot Spring Water
Flamingos Drinking Hot Spring Water

Many flamingos live in hypersaline (or super-salty) lakes, marshes and lagoons. And some of those water habitats are fed by near-boiling hot springs. So, what do the birds drink? Salt water – minus the salt!

Tiny organs called salt glands, located in their heads, filter out the salt from the water they sip, and the birds get rid of the salt through their nostrils. Even species that live in deserts, like the Chilean flamingo, have this adaptation to drink from pools in salt flats.

“But they will seek out fresh water if they can,” says flamingo expert Paul Rose from Exeter University. That’s where the almost-boiling hot springs are involved. Scientists aren’t sure how the birds are able to safely guzzle the scalding water, which can reach temperatures up to 60°C. But they think it has something to do with extra-tough linings all flamingos have in their mouths and throats. Biologists have also discovered blood vessels in the birds’ heads that might help them regulate their body temperature by shedding the heat they swallow, a bit like how a car’s radiator helps get rid of excess heat from the engine.

4 Flamingos don’t get cold feet

Flamingos Dont Get Cold Feet
Flamingos don’t get Cold Feet

Like all flamingos, Andean flamingos sleep standing up. But when these birds, which live high up in South America’s Andes Mountains, are snoozing, the temperature can plummet to below freezing – and the water they’re standing in turns to ice.

If a person dozed off in freezing water they would suffer frostbite – or perish. But not flamingos. When these birds wake up, they simply break their feet free from the ice, then bury their beaks in the icy water for a morning snack. In fact, some flamingos only leave for warmer areas when the ice gets too thick to feed.

It’s believed the ‘armour’ that protects these birds in corrosive water also helps them cope with extreme cold and heat! “We also see Andean flamingos in very hot springs, which feed water into these mountain lakes, says Felicity.

5 Flamingos nests are like castles

Flamingos Nests Like Castles
Flamingos Nests Like Castles

On the shores of Lake Bogoria in Kenya, East Africa, lesser flamingos are hunted by jackals.

But the birds‘ ability to thrive in hostile habitats has given them an advantage over hungry mammals – a protective natural moat. They make their dome-like mud nests (above) in the middle of corrosive water, helping keep each flamingo pair’s single egg – and later, their chick – safe from predators. Jackals pacing along the water’s edge can see thousands of newly hatched chicks across the shallows. But the toxic water means they’re out of reach. The mounds also keep everything dry when rain raises the lake’s water level.

The chicks are watched over by babysitters in nurseries so the parents can feed. Away from the nests, flamingos stick together in large flocks, which confuses predators trying to pick a target among the wall of pink.

“These birds are smart and tough,” Paul says. “Exactly the combination they need to survive.”

Interesting Facts about Flamingos

Flamingos Often Stand And Sleep On One Leg To Save Energy
Flamingos often stand and sleep on one leg to save energy
  • A group of flamingos is know as a flamboyance or a stand.

  • Flamingos live on every continent except Australia and Antarctica.

  • A greater flamingo’s legs can soak in toxic water for hours at a time!

  • Flamingos can lock their legs in one position, so they often stand – and sleep! – on one leg to save energy.

  • Flamingos get their bright pink or orange color from the food they eat. The Algae, brine shrimp and crustaceans that they gobble contain beta carotene, a chemical also found in carrots!

  • The black feathers under a flamingos wings can only be seen when the birds are flying.