The word flamingo comes from the Spanish word flamengo, an earlier form of flamenco. These words were derived from the Latin word flamma, which means 'a flame'.
The feather colors on different species of flamingos vary from pale pink to crimson or vermilion. The brightest plumage of crimson or vermilion belongs to the Caribbean flamingo. The Chilean flamingo is pale pink. The source of its fiery hues are its diet rich in alpha and beta-carotene. It feeds on blue-green and red algae, diatoms, larval, and adult forms of small insects, crustaceans, molluscs, and small fish. Chicks are born with gray or white plumage, that gradually turns pink over the period of one, two, or even three years.
These birds live in both saline and freshwater habitat such as lagoons, estuaries, mangrove swamps, mud flats, and large shallow coastal or inland lakes tidal flats, and sandy islands above the low tide mark. Flamingos are found in warm, shallow, watery regions on many continents. Their vast habitats include estuaries and saline or alkaline lakes in Africa, Asia, North America, Central America, South America, and Europe. For example, the Caribbean flamingo can be found on the north coast of South America, the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, and a number of Caribbean islands.
Sizes differ in species, with the greater flamingo measuring between 36 to 50 inches in height, with a wingspan of about 60 inches, and weigh an average of 8.75 lbs. Flamingos have long sinuous necks, slender legs, and black-tipped bills that achieve a downward bend upon maturity. They also have a keen sense of hearing, and are heard calling out, which is some form of communication. They are willing swimmers who float of the surface of the water with comfort and ease. Their webbed toes helps them swim and stand in soft mud.
Flamingos are known for their curious, inverted head feeding technique. They start by stirring up the mud and water with their long legs and webbed feet. They then turn their head slightly upside down, so that their inverted bills are underwater, enabling them to suck up both mud and water. They then shake their head from side to side, expelling the excess mud and water, and keeping back the plankton, tiny fish and fly larvae.
They are a social bird and live in large groups called flocks or colonies. The large numbers provide safety against predators, especially while they feed with their heads underwater. Nesting is also done along with other flamingos, as rearing is a community activity. Male and females share equal responsibility in parenting. Both partners pile up mud to build a nest, in which the female lays one egg. After about 30 days of incubating, which the to-be-parents take turns to do, the egg hatches to produce a chick. The parents regurgitate food which is fed to the baby, and both mother and father secrete a milk-like substance that provides their young with proper nourishment. This goes on till the baby's beak has developed fully, and it is capable of hunting for food.
These birds are famous for their collective gestures before, during, and after breeding. One may witness several hundreds of flamingos of one flock simultaneously displaying ritualized postures and movements to synchronize breeding. This may include only one display, or an often seen sequence of head-flag, wing-salute, and twist-preen. They are commonly witnessed preening, which takes up a considerable amount of time everyday. The purpose of the preening is to use the bill to spread oil from a gland near the base of their tail through their feathers, thus waterproofing them.
A breathtaking sight of the natural world is a flock of flamingos taking to flight. They pick up speed by running prior to taking off, and flap their wings almost constantly during flight. A flock can reach 31 to 37 mph. In recent times, alterations in their migration patterns have been witnessed due to environmental changes and global warming. These birds easily travel long distances and can cover over 300 miles at a stretch in a single night.
Flamingos face a threat from the destruction of their habitat by humans. Encroachment of their habitat, as well as indirectly causing changes in water depth, quality, and salinity, are adversely affecting these birds.