The curious world of flamingos

Did you know the inside of a flamingo’s egg is pink? And so is the milk parents feed their chicks.

The colouring is caused by the carotenoid in the flamingos’ food. But doesn’t just affect the pigment of their feathers it affects all aspects of their colouring and also has a huge impact on the mating rituals of the birds.

To mark World Wetlands Day on Sunday 2 February PhD researcher Paul Rose spoke to us about these fascinating birds.

He revealed: “Everything about a flamingo is pink, because of their food. Their egg yolk is pink. Their skin is pink. I’ve done a post-mortem on a flamingo and it’s not just the feathers that are stained by this pigment, it’s everything inside the animal as well.”

Paul’s PhD research into on flamingo friendship groups and enclosure design is taking place at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) Slimbridge. His behavioural observation PhD is evaluating the importance of stable relationships and how this contributes to the longevity and reproductive success of flocks.

Paul has a wealth of knowledge about these unique birds and he shared some fascinating flamingo facts and pictures with us.

Paul's knowledge of the birds know no bounds and he talked in details about their breading habits, rituals, how the build nests and rear their young.

He explained that when breeding season arrives one of the senior birds will influence the behaviour of the flock by flushing a deep pink; the rest of the birds can then decide if they will follow this example.

He said: “It is very much up to the individual to decide if they’re going to flush. If there are just a couple of birds and one turns pink but the others don’t, none of them will breed. But if there are enough birds that turn brighter then they’ll all breed.”

Flamingos have an equal opportunities policy when it comes to courtship. Unlike other species of birds, both males and females will flush pink and take part in the courtship dances.

Paul explained: “Flamingos are very long lived so they invest a lot in breeding. To get a good pairing the females need to show they are fit and strong.”

The team at Slimbridge WWT encourage the flamingos to build nests by putting some man-made examples in their enclosure.

Paul said: “They will build their own nests but if you provide them with a nest site with man-made nests, it makes the birds think flamingos have bred there before so it’s a good place to breed. We kind of convince them that this is a good place to nest."

Much like humans, flamingos like to be together. After working with the flamingos at WWT, Paul feels the social groups are chosen not by size but by colour. He said: “I’ve seen very small birds boss very big birds around and I’ve seen that those small birds are also quite pink. The pinkest birds are the ones with access to the most resources.”

Although the birds do like socialising it often turns to squabbles and arguments can result in eggs rolling out of the nests and breaking. To avoid this happening the team replace the eggs with wooden versions.

Paul said: “Flamingos will sit on the egg for 30 days, which is their incubation period, not knowing it’s wooden. As soon as the egg you have in your incubator starts to hatch you put it back in the nest. The parent is none the wiser."

He added: “They make very good parents; they’re just rubbish with their eggs!”

Paul's favourite flamingo fact is to do with their lifespan.

“We don't collect birds from the wild and haven't done so for a very long time. However, Slimbridge's records show that our Andean flamingo and James flamingo were collected in 1961, if they were mature adults at that point, they could be almost 70,” he revealed.

Their long lifespan, both in captivity and in the wild, may be due to them having very few predators, plus they don’t get diseases that affect other waterfowl.

“Flamingos are bomb-proof. They look so fragile but they’re not. Their only problem is if they break their leg,” said Paul.

Paul spoke of his passion for flamingos and for improving public understanding of them: “For too long they’ve just looked pretty and been ornaments; but they’re so much more than that. They arrived on this planet at the end of the age of the dinosaurs and have remained relatively unchanged."

They are found, in the wild, in every continent apart from Antarctica and Australia and have used habitats no other animal wanted, such as the caustic soda lakes of Kenya.

If you’d like to find out more about Paul’s research at Slimbridge, you can visit his blog or see the BBC's video about Paul's research.

Paul recently published his first PhD paper 'A review of captive flamingos'.