What do flamingos eat?
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- Flamingos are omnivorous filter feeders. They fill their mouths with water and sift out plants, insects, shrimp and fish.
- Flamingos may look fragile, but they thrive in water that is toxic to most other animals,
- Flamingos are pink because the food they eat is high in beta-carotene.
Flamingos are some strange looking birds. From their spindly legs to their bright pink plumage, they are certainly distinct from any other bird on Earth. But these unique qualities are closely related to the bird's diet and foraging habits. Flamingos wouldn't be what they are without their diet, and they wouldn't be able to eat without their unique physiological quirks. Here's everything you need to know about what flamingos eat.
What do flamingos eat?
Flamingos are omnivores and won't give up meat or vegetarian options, but the diet of these birds will vary by species. There are six different flamingo species, and their diet can be influenced by food availability and beak design. Flamingos with deep keeled bills include the James flamingo, the Andean flamingo, and the lesser flamingo. Species with shallow keel bills include Chilean flamingos, greater flamingos, and Caribbean flamingos.
Out of necessity, deep-keeled flamingo species tend to be more vegetarian than their shallow-keeled brethren. Plankton and algae make up most of their diet. They are particularly prone to feeding on blue-green algae called cyanobacteria, which are high in nutrients, especially beta-carotene. In contrast, shallow-keeled flamingo species tend to have more carnivorous diets. This usually occurs in the form of small invertebrates, insect larvae, small fish and brine shrimp. The eating habits of flamingos are very similar to both Old World and New World species, yet unique enough that multiple species can often occupy the same habitat without having to compete for dinner.
However, flamingos are not born on such a diet. The chicks get instead a substance called crop milk, which their parents produce in the back of their throats and regurgitate for their young. This is a diet rich in protein and fat designed to promote rapid growth in chicks. They will continue to be fed this way until they are 9 to 13 weeks old, at which point they will transition to an adult diet. It's at this point that flamingos will begin to develop their signature pink hue — a side effect of beta-carotene, which is found in cyanobacteria and brine shrimp, which also feed on this algae Rich.
Here is a list of foods that make up a typical flamingo diet:
- Blue-green algae (cyanobacteria)
- red algae
- small fish
- insect larva
- brine shrimp
How do flamingos forage?
Flamingos are filter feeders like baleen whales—meaning they extend their beaks into shallow bodies of water and push the water and mud out while accumulating nutritious solid matter in their beaks. A flamingo's quick, powerful tongue will push away any food that is too large or too small to ingest. What's left then passes through a series of comb-like structures called lamellae, which keep the food inside while filtering out the water. This filtering process happens very quickly, but the speed will vary depending on the species of flamingo. Lesser flamingos can suck water from their mouths 20 times a second, while Caribbean flamingos can only do the same about 4 to 5 times a second.
The shape of the beak affects what flamingos eat and how they filter their food. Flamingos with deep keeled mandibles will stroke their beaks shallowly at the surface, while those with shallow keeled mandibles will bury their beaks in deeper mud to arouse potential prey. They may also stomp in the mud for the same effect. Typical flamingos spend several hours a day doing this filtering process, yet they require surprisingly little food. Smaller flamingos only need about two dry ounces of food per day. Although they forage in salt water, flamingos only drink fresh water. As opposed to having a low food intake, a typical flamingo will swallow gallons of fresh water per day.
Flamingos have several adaptations that allow them to survive harsh environments and thrive in water that is toxic to other birds. In addition to filtering water for their food, they also filter salt from that same water so they can drink it. Some of the plants they eat, such as blue-green algae, are highly toxic to other animals. The cyanobacteria on which flamingos depend are deadly to most other animals.
What animal eats flamingos?
Because of their bright pink plumage, flamingos look like easy prey, but their chosen habitat is actually one of the biggest obstacles for predators. Because their feeding grounds are in the water, they are inaccessible to many predators in their ecosystem for most of the year. In some cases, flamingos have even adapted to survive in environments that would be too harsh for common predators. Lake Natron in Tanzania and Lake Bogoria in Kenya are so poisonous because of their high salinity that they can even burn human skin. They can survive in these waters thanks to their long, scaly legs, but are effective at keeping most predators at bay.
But when water levels start to drop, flamingos become more vulnerable to land predators. Big cats such as cheetahs, lions and leopards have been known to target African flamingos — and while hyenas are a common nuisance, they are rarely a deadly threat. New World species may be threatened by Jeffrey's cat, Andean fox and jaguar. In some cases, flamingo species have even fallen prey to pythons and wild boars.
The biggest threats to flamingos are usually other birds. Adult flamingos are too large to be a reasonable target for most birds, but the same is not true of eggs and chicks. Storks and hawks feed on both, and many species of vultures are known to target live chicks as well as adult flamingo carcasses left by other predators.
Are flamingos pink because they eat shrimp?
In a way, yes – but flamingos are more specifically pink because they have a specific type of plankton in their diet. The algae the flamingos eat is rich in beta-carotene, the chemical that gives their feathers their pink hue. Shrimp absorb the chemical when they eat plankton, and then transfer the chemical to the flamingo when it devours the plankton—but flamingos can also get their color by feeding directly on algae or fly larvae.
- 10 Incredible Flamingo Facts Flamingos are amazing birds that can survive in highly toxic areas. Check out some of the amazing things flamingos can do.
- Can flamingos fly? Can flamingos fly? Find it here.
- What is the name of the lesser flamingo? + 4 more amazing facts! Adult flamingos are strange, but beautiful. What is a baby like? Click here to learn more.
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about the author
Krishna is a lifelong animal owner and advocate. She owns and operates a small farm in upstate New York where she lives with three dogs, four donkeys, a mule and a cat. She holds a BA in Agricultural Technology and has extensive experience in animal health and welfare. When not working with her own animals and tending her farm, Krishna is helping other animal owners with behavior or management issues and teaching regenerative farming practices to nearby farmers.
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