Caribbean Flamingo, Phoenicopterus ruber ruber
TAXONOMY & NOMENCLATURE
(del Hoyo et al., 1992)(Feduccia, 1996)(Mindell et al., 1997)
(Ogilvie & Ogilvie, 1986)(Olsen & Feduccia, 1980)(Van Tuinen et al.,
Describer (Date): Linnaeus, 1758 (Phoenicopterus ruber)
Species: P. minor (Lesser Flamingo)
Species: P. andinus (Andean Flamingo)
Species: P. jamesi (Puna Flamingo/James' Flamingo)
Species: P. chilensis (Chilean Flamingo)
Species: P. ruber (Greater Flamingo)
Subspecies: Phoenicopterus ruber roseus (Greater Flamingo)
Subspecies: Phoenicopterus ruber ruber (Caribbean Flamingo)
Taxonomic History and Nomenclature
- Higher level taxonomy is still under debate, due to mosaic of
character similarities to other Orders of birds, although everyone
agrees that the flamingos belong in their own Family.
- Order level taxonomic theories
Ciconiiformes, Ardeidae or Ciconiidae (herons,
storks); evidence based on shape of pelvis and ribs,
structure of a chick's down, DNA-DNA hybridization, and
mitochondrial DNA studies.
- Anseriformes (particularly geese); evidence based on
presence of webbed feet, similarities in bill structure,
vocalizations, and similar ectoparasites that have coevolved
with the flamingo. In addition, the chicks are covered with
down when they hatch, and they are precocious, leaving the
nest within a few hours.
- Charadriiformes, Recurvirostridae (avocets, stilts);
evidence based on comparison with fossil record, skeletal
and muscular morphology, and behavior.
- Podicipediformes (grebes). Recent DNA studies have
found a strong relationship between flamingos and grebes
(Van Tuinen et al., 2001).
- Phoenicopteriformes Due to the unique combination of
characters, many believe that flamingos belong in their own
- Species level taxonomy: del Hoya et al. (1992) suggest that the
5 species are similar enough to be divided into only two groups, based
on bill morphology.
- Primitive bill: Greater flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber subspp.)
and chilean flamingo (P. chilensis)
- More specialized: Lesser (Phoeniconaias minor), Andean
(Phoenicoparrus andinus), and Puna (Phoenicoparrus
- Scientific Name: Phoenicopterus = "crimson" (phoinix),
"winged" (pterus), Greek; ruber =
- Fossil Record
- One of the oldest bird families: fossils of primitive forms
date back 50 million years.
- Juncitarsus: possible earliest ancestor in
fossil record, Wyoming and Germany; shows
characteristics of both shorebirds and flamingos;
does not have modern flamingo-type beak.
- Past distribution was more extensive than today.
- Extinct species showing fully modern type of bill
found in North America, Europe, and Australia.
DISTRIBUTION & HABITAT
(Baldassarre & Arengo, 2000) (Brueker & Vargas, 1998)(del Hoyo et al.,
(Elphick, et al., 2001)(Ogilvie & Ogilvie, 1986)(Sprunt, 1973)
- Four disjunct populations:
- Galapagos Islands - 50 saline lagoons on Isabela,
Santa Cruz, Floreana, Bainbridge, and Rabida Islands. Most
breeding occurs on southern Isabela Island.
- Southern Caribbean - Guajira Peninsula of Colombia, N
coast of Venezuela, Bonaire, and nearby islands. A small
number can be found farther east along the N coast of South
America to French Guiana.
- Yucatan Peninsula - N coast, from Campeche to Cabo
Catoche, with rare sightings at Sian Ka'an Biosphere
Reserve, and on Cozumel Island. Celestun Lagoon and Ria
Lagartos Lagoon appear to be the most important localities,
containing up to 75% of the population at a given time.
- Northern Caribbean - Bahamas, Hispaniola, Cuba, Turks
and Caicos, and southern Florida (probably escaped
- Only four main breeding sites:
- Great Inagua, Bahamas
- Archipelago de Camaguey, Cuba
- Rio Lagartos, Yucatan, Mexico
- Bonaire, Netherlands Antilles
- Smaller numbers breed in other areas within their overall range
- Distribution map based on Ogilvie
- Saline lagoons, muddy flats, shallow lakes -coastal or inland. Prefers
saline to fresh water.
- Can tolerate twice the salinity of sea water and alkalinity up to pH
- Disturbances in the habitat, such as severe weather, affect resources
which may cause flamingos to move around during the year, as they
adapt to shifting food availability and good breeding sites.
(del Hoyo et al., 1992)(Fox, 1975)(Ogilvie & Ogilvie, 1986)
(Rooth, 1965)(Shannon, 2000)(Zweers et al., 1995)
Height: 120 - 145 cm (47-57 in.)
Body Weight: males 2.8 kg (6.1 lbs), females 2.2 kg (4.8 lbs)
Wing Length: males 401-425 mm (15.8-16.7 in.), females 370-408 mm
- Tall, slender, wading birds with webbed feet.
- Neck and legs longer, relative to body size, than any other bird.
- Overall plumage color is a deep pink to red/orange ; color may be
darkest on rump, head, and neck.
- Black primary and secondary feathers.
- Beak with black tip, pink to red/orange middle, and pale yellow base
near the eye; upper bill often lighter in color.
- Legs pink with slightly darker knees
Plumage: Coloration and Molting
- Thick bill with sharply down turned angle; Lower bill
much thicker than upper.
- Odd shape is characteristic of the Family. Gap of an
open beak is the same along entire length (=more
efficient filtration); gap of straight bill would be
much larger at tip.
- Inner surface of beak has rows of keratinous plates
(lamellae), covered with tiny hairs (cilia) through
which food is strained out of water. Similar in
function to a baleen whale.
- Tongue fits into deep groove in lower bill and acts as a
piston to pump water in and out.
- Proximal surface of tongue with 2 longitudinal rows of
spiny protuberances that point towards the throat.
|| Flamingo head and beak, from Zweers et
- See Life Stages for a description of the
changes in plumage with age.
- Molting cyle is variable:
- Can occur gradually, so that there is no period of flightlessness.
- Can occur simultaneously, as seen in waterfowl, resulting in a
three-week flightless period. Most often observed in captive
- Occurs from twice per year to every one or two years.
- Common molting periods: (a) Just before breeding displays begin,
contour feathers are replaced with full breeding plumage color,
(b) Just after breeding, almost all feathers replaced, (c) Just
before egg laying and during incubation, head and neck feathers
may be replaced.
- Bright pink of feathers, legs, and beak comes from carotenoids that are
metabolized into several different byproducts (pigments) and
deposited, through the blood, to different parts of the body.
- Major pigments found in P. ruber ruber:
- Canthaxanthin (red), main pigment in feathers of all
flamingo species; also found in roseate spoonbill, and scarlet
- Astaxanthin (red), main contributor to skin color of legs,
minor contribution to feather color.
- The carotenoids cannot be synthesized by the flamingo, but must be
- Because there is no blood supply to the feathers once they have
finished growing, it is not known how the color is retained by the
Comparison with other species and subspecies
- Females up to 20% smaller than males; no overlap in body size
- All flamingos have black flight feathers, and wing coverts that are
darker pink that the body.
- Caribbean: the brightest overall color, knees darker pink; beak
deep pink, lower bill darker.
- Greater: similar in size to Caribbean, but body, neck and head
very pale pink; knees with less contrasting color; bill with
less black, the rest a light pink. Distribution- Africa,
Mediterranean, Middle East, Southern Russia, India.
- Lesser: smallest; pale pink, but not as pale as Greater; slight
spotting of darker pink on back; entire bill dark red, almost
black, all the way to the eye; legs dark gray/pink w/o contrasting
knee color. Distribution- mostly southeastern Africa with
outlying populations in western Africa, the middle east, and India.
- Chilean: very similar to the Greater, but slightly smaller;
during breeding, breast and neck may become slightly more pink; legs
yellow-gray with contrasting dark pink knees and feet; bill tip black,
base is very pale pink. Distribution- southwestern South America in
Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina from lowlands to high altitude
- Andean: similar to Chilean, but head and neck a truer pink than
other flamingos (more pink than orange/pink), which extends to
spotting on the breast; legs bright yellow with no contrasting knees;
bill with black tip and yellow base. Distribution- small area of the
Andean Altiplano at 3500 - 4500 m (12,000-15,000 ft); overlaps with
Chilean and James'.
- Puna: also called "James' Flamingo"; very similar to
Chilean and Andean, but smaller than both; when breeding, has band of
dark pink spots on the breast; legs dark pink without contrasting
knees; bill tip black, basal 2/3 is a dark yellow which is lined with
red along the proximal edge and around the eye. Distribution- high
elevation (usually greater than 4000 m) salt flats in Peru, Bolivia,
Chile and Argentina; range overlaps the other two South American
species' ranges, but much more restricted.
BEHAVIOR & ECOLOGY
(Boylan, 2000)(del Hoyo et al., 1992)(Espino-Barros & Baldassarre, 1989a)
(Espino-Barros & Baldassarre, 1989b)(Rooth, 1965)
- Highly variable site to site, and throughout a given year.
- Studies in Yucatan, Mexico show the following patterns.
- Major activities: feeding, preening, and resting. Other activities
are associated with locomotion, aggression, alertness, and
- During the breeding season, energy is diverted to courtship,
nesting, and incubation.
- Most feeding occurs just prior to courtship, suggesting that
stored reserves are used during synchronous breeding activities.
- Highly social, forming large colonies with tens or hundreds of
thousands of individuals.
- Large numbers provide security.
- Little competition for food -algae and invertebrates tend to be
concetrated and abundant.
- Tend to not defend their nest or area around themselves very
- Four types of agonistic displays were described by Rooth (1965)
- Bill-fighting: both individuals aggressive; face each
other and try to bite the head/beak area of opponent
- Chasing: one chases another; retreating bird stretches
neck out straight; chaser pecks at tail end of other.
- Threatening: face each other with outstretched necks
and open mouths, sometimes with growling vocalizations.
- Mate protection: If a mated pair comes in
contact with another, the male will become aggressive,
defending the female.
- Done in groups to synchronize breeding in a colony.
- Wing salute- wings are spread for a few seconds, showing a flash
of color; the neck is stretched out and the tail is flipped up.
Usually followed by head twist to the back.
- Wing-leg stretch- simultaneous stretch of one wing and leg on
the same side.
- Twist-preening- rapidly alternating between stretching neck
forward and twisting head around to the back, bill touching shoulders
- Head flagging- head held high, neck stretched, head slowly and
rhythmically turns left and right
- Head shaking- bend neck, head waggles side to side.
- Marching- tight group marches together in one direction, then
suddenly flips around and walks the other direction.
- Bowing: neck stretched forward, and angled down toward the
water; wings are open about a third
- Most important function: to keep flock together.
- Very similar to geese.
- Honking sound while flying and on the ground.
- A "low gabbling noise" from groups during feeding.
- Grunting, growling noises given during breeding or aggressive displays.
- Recent captive studies by Boylan (2000) show the following:
- There are many more vocalizations than previously thought.
- There are four main components to the calls: repetitive, tonal,
"buzzy", and a combination repetitive/tonal.
Dispersal and Migration
- Walk and run easily when threatened. Take-off requires a short run,
facing wind with wings flapping.
- Fly with necks and legs outstretched, similar to cranes and storks.
- Continuous, rapid flapping, reaching speeds of 50-60 km/h (31-37
- Fly in loose "v" or diagonal line, similar to geese and
- Tend to be fairly nomadic throughout the year as they follow shifting
- Move to different patches within sites; move between sites up to
hundreds of km apart.
- Generally, non-migratory birds.
- Those that do, migrate between summer breeding sites and winter
- In Bonaire, migration does not occur all at once, but in successive
- Galapagos population sedentary.
- See Distribution for a list of the four
major breeding sites.
DIET & FEEDING
(Arengo & Baldassarre, 2002)(del Hoyo et al., 1992)
(Ehrlich, et al., 1988)(Rooth, 1965)(Zweers et al., 1995)
- Filter feeders; small crustaceans (such as amphipods),
mollusks, insects (such as midges and brine flies),
polychaete worms, fish (rarely), widgeongrass seeds,
muskgrass tubercles, and algae.
- One Caribbean flamingo needs ~32,000 brine-fly chrysalids or
50,000 larvae per day.
- Sometimes swallow mud to obtain nutrients and microorganisms,
such as bacteria, and protozoa.
- Swallowing rough granuals of sand or stone makes the gizzard
more effective in grinding up shelled organisms like snails.
- Young are fed "crop milk", which is produced by
glands lining the upper digestive tract, rather than in the
crop. The milk contains a high level of fat and nutrition.
- Feeding mechanism:
- Head held upside down in shallow water (beak parallel to
waterline), sweeping side to side.
- Tongue pumps water in and out of beak like a piston (5-6
times/second). Backward curving spines on tongue help guide
food to the throat. For larger food particles, the beak is
used as the pumping mechanism.
- Food particles are strained out of the water through the
- Top bill not fixed to the skull, but moves up and down during
the filtering process. Mammals and other birds have a fixed
- Also feed by picking up larger prey in their beak and
- Six feeding behaviors were described by Rooth (1965)
- Skimming: moving beak back and forth in the top layer of
water; mostly used for plankton
- Grubbing: up-ending, like a dabbling duck; used to feed
along the bottom of meter-deep water. Long legs and neck permits
feeding in areas that are deeper than those used by other waders.
- Walking and seizing with beak, as with use of forceps
- Stamping -"marking time": standing in one place,
lifting feet up and down; in muddy bottoms; flushes out prey
- Stamping in a circle: around the bill, which is at the
center; a small mound is formed, surrounded by shallow moat; in
- Running: along the bank, stabbing at prey with forceps-like
motion; similar to feeding activity of small herons.
- Walking, the beak tip leaving a trail: very shallow water;
used for scooping mud and filtering out microorganisms.
- Often do not have access to fresh water
- Will drink rainwater when available
- Have a salt excreting organ above the eye similar to that
seen in other sea dwelling vertebrates (gulls, turtles,
REPRODUCTION & DEVELOPMENT
(del Hoyo et al., 1992)(Ehrlich et al., 1988)(Rooth, 1965)(Sprunt, 1973)
- Opportunistic, erratic breeders. Breeding season varies within and
among populations. Rainfall most important cue.
- First breeding at approximately 3 to 6 years
- Only fully colored adults participate in breeding.
- Most populations require a large colony for successful breeding (at
least 50, but ideally hundreds or thousands). Exception: Galapagos
populations will breed in groups of 5 to 10 pairs.
- Form long term pair bonds that last through several breeding seasons
- Courtship displays are used to synchronize breeding in colonies.
Copulation does not occur until the pair leaves the group. See Behavior and Ecology.
- Make nests of mud by scooping with lower jaw and piling bits of mud on
top of one another, smoothing with their feet. Form small, cone-shaped
mounds with scooped out top.
- Approximately 30 cm (12 in.) high
- Usually a small moat is excavated around the base.
- Sometimes twigs or roots used. On rocky islands without mud, may be
pile of stones.
- Both sexes build nests.
- Old nests often reused.
- Nests in a colony are built close together.
- Eggs white. Pinkish on rare occasions
- Egg is laid on the bowl-shaped top of the mud nest
- Clutch size: one egg; rarely two.
- Incubation: 27-31 days; done by both parents
- Broods: one per year
- Covered with white/gray down
- Leave nest after 5-8 days.
- Form "crèches," groups of chicks, after leaving the nest.
Small number of adults care for the crèches, which can contain
hundreds or thousands of chicks.
- Bills are straight for first two weeks, and then begin to develop the
characteristic shape and the filtering apparatus.
- Eyes are dark brown.
- Fed "crop milk" for the first couple of months (see Diet and Feeding). Drip milk from adult beak into
young's mouth. Both parents feed young this way.
- Mortality estimated at 30% during the first year.
- Feed independently at 28-42 days, but parents continue to feed until
- Fledge: 9-13 weeks.
- In about 4 weeks, downy plumage turns dark gray.
- In 6 to 10 months, down gives way to regular feathers; plumage turns
whitish gray, primaries black; beak is a light pink with black tip;
legs a grey brown and begin to turn pink.
- Plumage begins to turn pale pink; darker pink on the wings.
- As adulthood is approached, pale pink turns deeper and brighter
- Base of the neck turns first, giving the appearance of a collar.
- Overall color a deep red/orange when sexual maturity is reached, at 3-5
- Eyes are light yellow.
- Upper wings are last to show full color.
- Legs and feet turn deeper pink-red color; beak is yellow at base,
red/orange in the middle, and black at the tip.
- Have lived more than 60 years in captivity
- Life span in the wild is unknown
- Tropical storms and hurricanes can be lethal to coastal dwelling
flamingos, and may alter the habitat by flooding, reducing salinity,
and reducing food resources.
- Predators: raccoons, margay, gray fox, jaguar, crocodiles, humans, and
probably birds of prey.
DISEASES AND PATHOLOGY
(Beer & Kear, 1975)(Humphreys, 1975)(Wood, 1975)
- Little if any information is available regarding diseases in the wild.
- The following have been reported in captive populations
- Stress can make flamingos more vulnerable to sodium
depletion, aspergillosus, and pneumonia.
- Bacterial diseases/infections: infection of bursae and
joints from cuts caused by standing on hard surfaces;
salmonellosis; septicemia; synovitis; tuberculosis
- Fungal infections: in the lungs and air sacs; infection of
the plumage causes feathers to deteriorate along the edges,
giving them a frayed look and making them difficult to dry
- Rickets-like disease causing bending and thinning of the
- Cardiovascular disease: atherosclerosis
- Kidney disease: nephritis
(Diamant, 1997)(Elphick, et al., 2001)
(Friedmann, 2003)(Muller, 1983)
- Most common species found in captivity: Caribbean, Chilean, and
- Captive Breeding
- Often will not engage in breeding displays if not part of a
large enough colony. Captives in small groups have been
tricked into displaying by using mirrors.
- The color of plumage is an important breeding cue; faded
flamingos in captivity often do not breed. Without the
proper diet, flamingos lose their color and/or become
ill. San Diego Zoological Society uses feed that
contains a chemical found in crustaceans and algae in order
to avoid this.
- Captives usually have a more consistently defined breeding
season than in the wild; chicks usually hatch May - July.
- 1932: First Caribbean flamingos obtained by San Diego Zoo
- 1957: First Caribbean flamingo hatched at San Diego Zoo
- April 2003: San Diego Zoo opened its newly renovated Flamingo
Lagoon, containing only P. ruber ruber.
- SD Zoological Society collections:
- San Diego Zoo: Caribbean flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber
- Wild Animal Park: mixed flock of greater and lesser flamingos
(Phoenicopterus ruber roseus and Phoeniconaias
minor) in the Heart of Africa exhibit; Chilean flamingos
(Phoenicopterus chilensis) in Nairobi Village
POPULATION AND CONSERVATION STATUS
(Baldassarre & Arengo, 2000)(Brueker & Vargas, 1998)
(Delany & Scott, 2002)(Espinoza et al., 2000)(FSG, 2000)
- Galapagos Islands: 435
- 2001 estimate.
- References: Brueker & Vargas,
1998; Delany & Scott, 2002
- Bahamas: 60,000
- ~2000 (?) estimate
- References: Delany & Scott, 2002
- Cuba: 100,000 to 200,000
- 2000 and 1996 estimates, respectively
- References: FSG, 2000; Delany &
- Venezuela, and Bonaire: 34,000
- 1996 estimate
- References: Delany & Scott, 2002; Espinoza et al., 2000
- Yucatan Peninsula: 30,000
- ~2000 (?) estimate
- References: Delany & Scott, 2002
- ISIS captive population
Threats to survival
- Believed extinct in 1924, the James' flamingo was rediscovered in 1957,
its range overlapping that of the Chilean flamingo.
- IUCN: Andean and James' flamingos are listed as species of
- CITES: Caribbean, Greater, Chilean, Andean, and James'
flamingos, Appendix II.
- Because food and breeding sites shift spatially (due to seasonality of
food resources or changing environmental conditions), larger protected
areas are better than small ones because they are more likely to
contain enough resources throughout the year to accommodate these
- Because the color of feathers fades quickly after plucking, the feather
trade of the early 20th century did not exploit flamingos the way it
did many other bird species.
- Before the relationship between diet and feather color was well
understood, zoos often over-collected in order to replace groups that
had lost color or had died from poor nutrition.
- Habitat loss due to road construction and development of housing and
- Lead poisoning: due to the ingestion of lead shot, about 100 flamingos
were reported to have died in the Yucatan in 1989. Lead bullets are
- Large numbers of tourists, bird watchers and photographers can
disturb colonies enough to cause substantial losses of eggs and young.
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