There are 6 species of flamingoes in the world:
- The Andean Flamingo (Phoenicoparrus andinus): approx. 100 000 individuals
- The James Flamingo (Phoenicoparrus jamesi): approx. 50 000 individuals
- The Chilean Flamingo (Phoenicopterus chilensi): approx. 500 000 individuals
- The Caribbean Flamingo (Phoenicopterus rubber): approx. 90 000 individuals
- The Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus) – subspecies of the Caribbean Flamingo: between 500 000 and 800 000 individuals.
- The Lesser Flamingo (Phoenconaias minor): approx. 3 000 000 individuals.
At first glance, they may look similar to each other, but certain features such as size, leg colour or beak allow easy identification.
Greater Flamingoes are large birds (maximum height 187 cm; maximum overall length 207 cm; females 2 kg, males 4.5 kg) and are long-lived. Their survival varies, and depends on their individual characteristics (sex, age) as well as their environment. In 1938, the zoo of Basle in Switzerland received two adult flamingoes. One of these birds is still alive and would thus be more than 65 years today. In the wild, the flamingo ADH, ringed in 1977 on the Fangassier lagoon was observed January 16, 2004, so at 30 years-old, is the oldest wild flamingo presently known.
Flamingoes’ habits and anatomy make them remarkable.
The shape of their beak and the way they feed are peculiar. Moreover, thanks to a gland enabling them to void salt through their nostrils, they are the only species which can live in salted areas. In addition, they are one of the few species to raise their chicks in a nursery. Finally, its pink colour is extremely rare in the wild.
Flamingoes synthesize the pigments necessary for their colouring from carotenoids they find in their food, by consuming unicellular algae and seeds of watery plants. These “first hand” carotenoids are oxidized by consuming aquatic invertebrates such as Artemia salina or insect larvae. Development of the pink pigment is linked to their plumage.
At birth, the chicks are clad in a white down and their legs and bill are pink. After several days, the down becomes grey and their legs and bill become black. They will not acquire their full pink plumage until they are 4 years old, when they also become sexually mature.
Greater flamingoes are considered gregarious. They breed in colonies of hundreds to thousands of individuals. Pairs are not faithful from one year to the next, yet individuals of the same age tend to pair together (Cezilly & Johnson 1995). Nuptial parades start at the end of the autumn and pairs are formed the following summer.
Flamingoes breed and nest on islets surrounded by water, for protection from predators such as boars and foxes. Their hummock-shaped nests are made of mud, measuring 10 to 20 cm high. The clutch is incubated by both partners (for 1-4 days each) over 28-30 days.
Chicks wander outside the nest once they are a week old. After approximately 12 days, they gather in a crèche as they are abandoned by the parents during the day. Each parent relocates its chick among hundreds thanks to its unique cry. Parents feed their chick by producing a liquid from their crop, which is high in protein. Feeding lasts from 15 to 30 minutes, chicks will not forage for themselves until they fledge at 75 to 80 days.
In the autumn, most flamingoes leave the Camargue and head south, so as to avoid cold weather. For the newly fledged young, only those in good body condition tend to fly south (Barbraud et al... 2003). The choice of wintering site may depend on the direction of the wind when they disperse from the crèche (Nager et al. 1996).
Numerous adult and juvenile flamingoes winter in North Africa (Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia) and in West Africa (Mauritania, Senegal). Others head to the eastern part of the Mediterranean (Turkey, Israel, and Egypt).
Young flamingoes often remain for 2 to 3 years on or nearby their first wintering site. Afterwards, they increasingly converge on the breeding sites during the spring season.
Very few flamingoes breed at their birth site, and adults are not faithful to a breeding area from one year to another, and therefore causing wide exchange of individuals between colonies. It seems that all flamingoes born in the western Mediterranean belong to the same population, though they are not born and don’t breed at the same place. Such a population, composed of various inter-connected colonies, is usually called a meta-population.