Decked out in festive pink feathers, flamingos add a splash of color to sun-soaked beaches, turquoise lagoons, or even suburban lawns. In fact, their name originally meant flame-colored in Spanish and Portuguese. But these wading birds start out life as downy balls of gray and white, with no hint of incipient rosiness. So where exactly do they get that iconic pinkness?
Why so Pink? It’s What You Eat
The answer is simple: pigments. When flamingos eat, they accumulate red, orange, and yellow pigments called carotenoids from their diet. Produced by plants, algae, bacteria, and fungi, carotenoids give food like tomatoes and pumpkins their zesty color.
While flamingos don’t feast on tomato soup and pumpkin pie, they do consume other pigment-filled treats like brine shrimp, insect larvae, and algae. Fats in their liver absorb the pigments from their food, which are then deposited in their feathers and skin. This process slowly transforms lackluster juvenile flamingos into the blushing beauties of postcard fame.
Pinker is Preferable
But that’s not the end of our pretty-in-pink story. Flamingos range in pinkness, and the pinker, the better. Brighter hues reflect a flamingo’s health and foraging ability, which are important qualities during the mating season. Both female and male flamingos prefer brighter-colored mates, and they’re willing to fight for that rosy glow. In one species at least, pinker flamingos were more aggressive than paler ones during feeding, which helps them eat enough feather-staining food. So, for flamingos, pretty in pink is true!
The Pinkest States
In Florida, Texas, and Louisiana, we’re blessed with the presence of one rosy species: the American flamingo. This species is found across the Caribbean to the Yucatan peninsula and northern South America, predominantly in mudflats, inland lakes, and lagoons in estuarine or coastal areas. Wild flamingos in the U.S. are a rare sight, and for a long time, controversy stirred over whether the species was native here. Recently, a group of scientists determined that American flamingos are indeed native to the U.S., but were likely hunted to extinction by the end of the 19th century. Today, our charming revenants are coming from nearby Caribbean colonies.
Perils to the Fetching Flocks
Not everything is rosy in the world of flamingos though. Even though populations in the Caribbean are stable or increasing, flamingos still face threats on the road ahead. One major one is habitat loss, of the 30 to 40 nesting sites that dotted the Caribbean before 1900, only 5 to 6 remain. Hurricanes can also cause major damage to nesting colonies. For instance, in 2017 Hurricane Irma killed thousands of flamingos in Cuba. The more intense tropical storms predicted under climate change may not be good news for flamingos. Other impacts from climate change, including sea level rise and pollution may pose an increasing threat to flamingos and their nesting grounds in the coming decades.
Still interested in pink birds?
Learn more about the American Natural History Museum’s South American Flamingo Research here.
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Join a global network of Flamingo Specialists here. Scientists and non-scientists are welcome.
Learn about another rare species in the southeast: the American crocodile.