CHILEAN FLAMINGO: THE PINK BIRD THAT PERFORMS “YOGA”

They rarely appeared on the headline of any newspaper. They are rather unlikely to win researchers a Nobel Prize. But, their “Yoga” poses are impressive, and their pink plumage is pleasant. Their upside down feeding is beyond imagination, and their mating rituals deserves a thumbs-up.

The Chilean flamingos (Phoenicopterus chilensis) is one of the six species of living flamingos. Their pink knees (sometimes called ankles) and feet are the features that set them apartment from other species of flamingos. Because of their overall striking appearance, Chilean flamingos are popular zoo animals. In the wild, Chilean flamingos mainly breed in South America from Ecuador and Peru to Chile and Argentina and east to Brazil.  Outside South America, they have also been introduced to European countries such as Germany and the Netherlands as well as countries in Northern America like United States (Utah and California).

1. It’s all about that incredible neck!

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Sleeping, head tucked in feather

The long, flexible neck is the body part that orchestrates all of the “Yoga” routines in the daily life. Thanks to the 19 elongated vertebrae in the neck, which allow for maximum movement and twisting. This highly flexible neck has extended its general purpose of supporting the beak at the mealtime to a wide range of other functions. For example, when a bird is tired, it configures its neck into an S-shape and sink its head into its feathers for an uninterrupted nap, sometimes on one leg only (What an innovative “Yoga” pose!). Another use of their distinctive neck is to serve as the handle of the “beak-turned club” to ward off their opponents during the occasional quarrels among them. And, of course, this one-of-a-kind neck enables them to groom every feather on their body.

2. Speaking of feeding …  

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Chilean Flamingo, (a) Upper Jaw (c) Lower Jaw. Source.
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Maxillary lamellae (a) outside of upper jaw (b) inner rows in upper jaw. Source.

Can anyone have a bowl of soup while holding his head upside down? Absolutely not! But, believe it or not, that’s exactly how these birds take in their food. They literally bend their neck 180 degrees (an outstanding “Yoga” move!) and then hold their beak upside down before they dip it into the water containing the food items. Once their beak is in the water, a sophisticated lamellae system inside their jaws filters small animals and plant matters from the water. Another study of their beaks indicates that an erectile tissue in their beaks might also help stabilize the mouth and tongue during this peculiar feeding process.

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Chilean flamingo feeding chick. Source.
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Chilean Flamingo Feeding. Source.

As for a chick, who has not yet developed into a filter feeder, the parents, with an intimate “beak-to-beak” precision, drip their “crop milk“, which they produce in their upper digestive tract, to their chick. Parents recognize their own chick by sight and vocalizations.  And, yes, either parent can assume the role of feeding their chick.

3. You are what you eat!

Adult Chilean Flamingos eat a diet that consists of aquatic invertebrates like crustaceans and mollusks, diatoms, and algae. The carotenoid pigments that are abundant in some of these food items give a Chilean Flamingo its pink plumage, red knees (ankles), and red webbed feet. Without such a diet, a Chilean Flamingo wouldn’t have its pink hue.  Therefore, newborn chicks start with gray feather. Then, they gradually received the pigments through the crop milk of their parents to get the pink coloration. The phenomenon of “Like father, like son” is not observed among these flamingos until a sufficient amount of carotenoid pigments have been transferred to the chicks.

4. Mating in style

These Chilean flamingos don’t take their courtship lightly. They loyally adhere to formal mating rituals. Four types of the most common rituals are listed below: (This information is displayed at the Lincoln Park Zoo, Chilean Flamingo Exhibit)

a. Head Flagging—the birds shake their head from side to side, calling loudly.

b. Wing Salute—the birds stand tall, stretch their wings and flap them forward in one big rush.

c. Twist Preen—the bird duck their necks down beneath their wings (an artistic “Yoga” pose)

d. Inverted Wing Salute—the birds bow as they spread their wings wide (another challenging “Yoga” pose)

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Chilean Flamingo Chicks Hatched! Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago, IL

By performing these rituals in synchrony, a flock of flamingos ensures that they lay their eggs at the same time. This helps the next generations of chick hatch and mature at the same rate. In fact, the flock residing in the Waterfowl Lagoon of Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago recently demonstrated how their mating rituals help achieve breeding success. In September 2015, five gray-feathered chicks hatched—the first-ever Chilean flamingo chicks for the zoo.  Now, you see why these flamingos want to honor the tradition.

5. Gone with the wind!

In dealing with the life in windy urban environments, Chilean Flamingos solely rely on human’s intervention.  Although Chilean Flamingos are a larger species of flamingos, they are still rather light relative to their height. With a height of 3.6-4.3 ft. and a wingspan of 3.9-4.9 ft., they only weigh 5.5-7.7 lbs.  A human with equal height weighs about 10 times a Chilean flamingo. If the man struggles to hold his footing in gales, it’s no wonder that these light birds on their stilt-like legs can easily “go with the wind”.  This actually happened to the flock at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. One time, after a gale swept through the area, some of their Chilean Flamingos were found on the beach across the zoo , on the other side of Route 41.  Since then, moving its flock to an indoor shelter when there is a gale in the forecast has become a protocol at the zoo.  In this regard, Lincoln Park Zoo is not alone. According to a BBC report, Dudley Zoo in England, also has been taking the necessary measure to protect their flock from this dangerous weather condition.

6. An endangered species? Not quite, but …

Although there are about 200,000 individuals of P. chilensis worldwide today, the number of these birds has declined sharply since 1970. This trend has earned them an IUCN status of “Near Threatened” and a CITES Appendix: II. Both listings call for more protection of Chilean flamingos. Human activities such as mining, water diversion, egg harvesting, agriculture, and industrial projects in South America are the main causes for the accelerating reduction of these birds. Moreover, a research that was conducted in Mar Chiquita, Co´rdoba, and Argentina (the major breeding grounds of Chilean flamingos) suggests that long-term climate change has increased water level in those regions. As a result, some of the breeding grounds are under water.  This, in turn, lowers breeding success of these birds. Whether it’s due to climate change or human activities, the fate of these elegant birds is in the hands of human. If they wish to enjoy the beautiful sight of these animals for many years to come, they must take the conservation of these flamingos seriously.

7. So, what’s next? 

Indisputably, the Chilean flamingo is the bird of grace and pleasure. However, so far, too little has been done for them to safely continue their journey on earth. More research and conservation efforts need to be implemented for this precious species.  The hope for its sustained survival can never be overstated!

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