The Caribbean Flamingo
By Susana Cortázar
They are iconic to South Florida. Drive by or visit just about any home in the area and chances are you will find plastic ones in front lawns and backyards or around the family pool. Buy a Florida Lotto ticket and you will see its image plastered all over it. Remember the Hialeah Race Track? You can even find them peeking out of Zoo Miami staff’s pencil holders.
Photo by Cristina Heredia
They are also the first animals to quite vocally greet visitors to Zoo Miami. What are they? Why, the vibrantly colored Caribbean flamingoes found at our Flamingo Lake, of course!
Native to the Caribbean, the Galápagos Islands, coastal Colombia, Venezuela and nearby islands, the Caribbean flamingo, one of the five flamingo species and formerly known as the American flamingo, breeds in the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico, the Bahamas, Hispaniola, Cuba, and the Turks & Caicos Islands. According to Kresimir Golenja, one of the two flamingo keepers, “this means that the Caribbean flamingoes found in South Florida are most likely ‘escapees!’ One banded flamingo from the Yucatán was actually found in the Everglades National park once.” Per Senior Zookeeper Susan Kong, “we also had a flamingo from the Hialeah Race Track flock fly into Zoo Miami and stay with our flock for a few years before flying back to Hialeah.”
These interesting birds, with their long, thin legs which enable them to stand in deep water, range from vibrant orange to pinkish white, have long graceful necks, large wings which when tucked in cover a short tail, webbed feet, extend their legs and necks when in flight, and are swimmers. They are very social animals, live and breed in colonies, and the males and females look alike, with the male being a tad larger, heavier, and has a thicker neck. Males weigh approximately six pounds and females five. They range from 49 to 57 inches in height.
Their diet consists of mollusks, crustaceans, insects, fish, algae, seeds, and worms. Their tri-colored beak – white, yellow, black – is shaped in such a way that when the flamingo feeds, the specialized beak is upside down, the bottom jaw opens to allow water and food particles in. Then, while the tongue is pushing the water out, the tongue, its lamellae (fleshy projections on the tongue), and the beak’s grooves work together to let the water out through the beak’s sides and retain the food particles. It’s fascinating to watch how they can feed by lightly skimming the water’s surface, putting the entire beak under water, or submerging the whole head.
The Caribbean flamingo lives in saline lagoons, lakes, mudflats, and in shallow brackish coastal or inland lakes. Irregular breeders who breed every two to three years, flamingoes lay one egg in mud nests built by both mother and father. Kresimir explains that “the mounds have a depression on top, which makes them look like miniature mud volcanoes. The flamingo lays a white 3 ½” x 2” egg in the depression to prevent it from rolling out.”
According to Zoo Miami’s Bird Department Zoological Supervisor Carl Burch, “flamingoes can and do double and even triple clutch if something happens to their egg. We have had two eggs in one nest, but it was from a female/female pair with one egg from each. That’s another involved but fascinating piece of information about flamingoes – they form same-sex bonds during the breeding season if the flock sex ratio is skewed one way or the other.”
Eggs are laid “usually between April and August and the incubation period is 28 – 32 days,” adds Kresimir. Both parents brood the egg, “and when hatched, the young are dependent on their parents until their filtering mechanism develops at between 65 – 70 days old,” says Kresimir. Caribbean flamingoes reach sexual maturity at age six and their average lifespan is 40 years.
They have various vocalizations, depending on what message they want to convey, but the most humorous one is an “ohhnn” that makes them sound like a goose!
What most people think is a flamingo’s knee, found halfway down its leg, is actually its ankle, “which makes sense when you think about it as there are no knees that turn backward,” jokes Kresimir. The flamingo’s knee is actually found right under its wings. Look closely next time you visit and you will see what he means.
Photo by Ron Magill
At Zoo Miami, we have 42 flamingoes, and Kresimir and their other keeper, Ezequiel Bugallo, feed them twice a day – morning and afternoon – “with pellets that contain carotene, which is what gives them their beautiful deep orange color. The flamingoes peacefully share Flamingo Lake with koi fish, wading birds, and water fowl,” says Ezequiel.
During 1992’s Hurricane Andrew, the flamingoes were placed in one of the zoo’s bathrooms, where they safely huddled and survived the hurricane’s devastation.
And one last interesting fact about these beautiful birds is that they can stand for hours on one leg with their head tucked into their body in a resting position and you can’t help but wonder how they can achieve that pose on such skinny legs. Try holding this position for that long in yoga class next time!
So come to Zoo Miami and receive a grand welcome from these vociferous, colorful, and interesting birds!