Flamingos, decked out in jubilant pink feathers, are the belle of the ball. The life of the party, tourists flock to them wherever they are. But among this festive group, there’s a singular species brimming with quirky, delightful traits: the Andean flamingo.
One of the six species of flamingos, they’re found along with Chilean and James’s flamingos. Andean flamingos are the largest of the bunch and the only species with golden boots, or yellow legs. One of the rarest flamingos, the amazing Andean flamingo never fails to captivate. Keep reading to learn more about this intriguing species!
As the Flamingo Flies
As their name suggests, Andean flamingos live primarily in wetlands of the Andes mountains, stretching from southern Peru and Bolivia and northern Argentina and Chile. However, this species has been bitten by the travel bug and can fly over 700 miles per day! A few vagrants have been found as far away as Brazil, and they pick and move each season. In summer (from December to February in South America), most flamingos inhabit higher elevations, while during the winter, they disperse to lower elevations to seek out better weather and environmental conditions.
Eat like a Flamingo
Andean flamingos forage in shallow, often salty, water. Along with whales, sponges, and fish, they eat via a curious method: filter feeding. Flamingos stir up the mud with their feet and then sweep their heads from side to side in the water, straining food through teeth-like structures in their bills. Andean flamingos prefer algae and diatoms, but also eat fish, invertebrates, and plants. Their odd-shaped bills are actually an adaptation to help separate food from mud and silt.
Graceful as a Flamingo
Andean flamingos breed during the summer when their wetlands fill up with summer rains. Social butterflies, their breeding colonies can have thousands of pairs. Before mating, flamingos perform several displays, including preening, outstretching their wings, and bowing. The most comedic one is where the whole flock walks in one direction, heads swiveling, before heading abruptly in the other direction. Like some kind of flamingo dance, it looks as silly as it sounds.
After the chicks hatch, the amazing Andean flamingo has another feat, lactation. They produce a type of milk from their upper digestive tract that’s rich in protein and fat. Crop milk is produced by both females and males and is controlled by prolactin, the same hormone that governs lactation in mammals.
Flamingos of a Feather Flock Together
In addition to dancing and lactation, flamingos have another interesting feat when it comes to breeding. Once the chicks are old enough to leave the nest, they form groups of hundreds or thousands of chicks called crèches. A few adults watch over this nursery, which frees the others to forage while protecting the chicks from predators. Penguins, ostriches, and royal terns also have crèches.
While pink feathers are their trademark, flamingos start out life in the not-so-exciting shades of gray and white. It’s only later in life that they gain their characteristic pinkness through their diet. And that’s a sought-after trait, flamingos prefer pinker shades since it reflects a potential mate’s health and foraging ability.
A Flamingo Around the Neck
Unfortunately, this species is rare for a reason, it’s classified as federally endangered in the U.S. and vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. In the mid-1980s, a population size estimated between 50,000 to 100,000 rapidly declined to only around 38,000 individuals today. A major threat is mining for salt, gold, lithium, and silica sands. These activities can reduce water levels, and disturb and pollute their habitat.
Poaching and illegal hunting are also a problem for Andean flamingos, along with water diversions, unregulated tourism, and development. Unfortunately, demand for lithium, which powers batteries in laptops, tablets, phones, and other devices, is expected to climb in coming years, which could further threaten their habitat.
Take a Flamingo under Your Wing
Fortunately, conservation efforts are ongoing for the Andean flamingo, including habitat management, preventing egg collection, and raising public awareness. A scientific group, the Grupo de Conservación Flamencos Altoandinos, also coordinates research, monitoring, and conservation for flamingo species throughout Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, and Peru.
Want to learn more about the amazing Andean Flamingo?
- Read more about their status on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List.
- Or check out the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Andean flamingo page.
- Read a book on flamingo behavior and natural history.
- The American Natural History Museum’s Field Research News has many interesting articles on flamingos, including Andean flamingos.
- If you can read Spanish, the Grupo de Conservación Flamencos Altoandinos page has lots of information on this species.
- If you missed the links above, check out National Geographic’s video of the flamingos’ mating dance or BBC’s. It’s the best thing you’ll see all day.