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Pedros Szekely
Pedros Szekely

15 Fascinating Flamingo Facts

Pedros Szekely
Pedros Szekely

Photograph by Pedros Szekely.

Flamingos are a familiar sight even to those who have never seen one in real life. The tropical wading birds have long legs with backward-bending knees, long curvy necks, and most noticeably, they are pink. We can admire flamingos or laugh at them (and often both), so we may as well learn something about them.

1. There are six distinct species of flamingo, but it takes a trained eye to distinguish them.

Photograph by Charles J Sharp.

2. Adult flamingos are four to five feet tall, but only weigh between four and eight pounds. That’s the kind of astonishing body density (or lack of) needed for flight.

Photograph by Adam Baker.

3. Flamingos tend to congregate in mudflats or lagoons, where they can find shallow saltwater prey. These habitats are also difficult for predators to negotiate.

Photograph by Valerio Pillar.

4. Flamingos feed by stirring up mud with their feet. Then they reach down and scoop up a beakful of mud and water. Their beaks are designed to strain animals out of the mud, and the muddy water is expelled. This happens as the flamingo’s head is upside-down.

5. The American flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber) is the only flamingo species native to North America, but is rarely seen in the United States anymore. It is generally more brightly colored than the Greater flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus) that inhabits the coasts of Africa, Asia, and southern Europe. Although the Greater flamingo is the most widespread species, the most numerous is the Lesser flamingo (Phoenicopterus minor).

Photograph by Flickr user Quinn Dombrowski. 

6. The color pink comes from beta-carotene in the crustaceans and plankton that flamingos eat. Zoo flamingos will turn white if their diet is not supplemented with live shrimp or flamingo chow containing carotenoid pigments.

Photograph by Jerry Friedman.

7. The feathers under their wings (flight feathers) are black. You only see them when the birds are flying.

8. Flamingos flock in groups of up to several hundred birds. They often perform their mating displays together, like this flamingo flamenco. However, different species and even different flocks will put a slightly different spin on their communal rituals. Read about some of the individual mating dance moves

9. The male and female of a mating pair build a nest together, and both sit on the egg while it incubates for about a month.

10. Some flamingos find it easier to steal a nest that’s already been built, so mating pairs must guard a nest from other flamingos as well as predators.

Photograph by Martin Pettitt.

11. When a flamingo chick hatches, both parents take turns feeding it: first with a special liquid baby food they produce in their throats called crop milk, then with regurgitated regular flamingo food as the chick ages.

Photograph by Flickr user Linda Tanner.

12. Flamingo chicks are born with grey and white feathers. They do not turn pink for a year or two. Their beaks are straight, and begin to curve as they grow and mature.

13. A variety of land predators will eat flamingos and their eggs, but since their nests are built on swampland or mudflats, the most common predators for flamingos are other birds.

Photograph by Dario Niz.

14. Flamingos are not endangered; they are classified as “least concern” as their numbers are fairly stable. Whether they stay stable will depend on what happens to their habitats and breeding grounds in the future. There is one related species that is declining, however…

Photograph by Flickr user Kim Kruse.

15. Plastic lawn flamingos (Phoenicopterus plasticus) are an American cultural icon that was introduced in 1957 by artist Don Featherstone. In the 21st century, they are considered endangered. Efforts are underway to revive the art form, and in 2009, Madison, Wisconsin, named the plastic pink flamingo the city’s official bird.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Gophers and Groundhogs?
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
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Gophers and groundhogs. Groundhogs and gophers. They're both deceptively cuddly woodland rodents that scurry through underground tunnels and chow down on plants. But whether you're a nature nerd, a Golden Gophers football fan, or planning a pre-spring trip to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, you might want to know the difference between groundhogs and gophers.

Despite their similar appearances and burrowing habits, groundhogs and gophers don't have a whole lot in common—they don't even belong to the same family. For example, gophers belong to the family Geomyidae, a group that includes pocket gophers (sometimes referred to as "true" gophers), kangaroo rats, and pocket mice.

Groundhogs, meanwhile, are members of the Sciuridae (meaning shadow-tail) family and belong to the genus Marmota. Marmots are diurnal ground squirrels, Daniel Blumstein, a UCLA biologist and marmot expert, tells Mental Floss. "There are 15 species of marmot, and groundhogs are one of them," he explains.

Science aside, there are plenty of other visible differences between the two animals. Gophers, for example, have hairless tails, protruding yellow or brownish teeth, and fur-lined cheek pockets for storing food—all traits that make them different from groundhogs. The feet of gophers are often pink, while groundhogs have brown or black feet. And while the tiny gopher tends to weigh around two or so pounds, groundhogs can grow to around 13 pounds.

While both types of rodent eat mostly vegetation, gophers prefer roots and tubers (much to the dismay of gardeners trying to plant new specimens), while groundhogs like vegetation and fruits. This means that the former animals rarely emerge from their burrows, while the latter are more commonly seen out and about.

Groundhogs "have burrows underground they use for safety, and they hibernate in their burrows," Blumstein says. "They're active during the day above ground, eating a variety of plants and running back to their burrows to safety. If it's too hot, they'll go back into their burrow. If the weather gets crappy, they'll go back into their burrow during the day as well."

But that doesn't necessarily mean that gophers are the more reclusive of the two, as groundhogs famously hibernate during the winter. Gophers, on the other hand, remain active—and wreck lawns—year-round.

"What's really interesting is if you go to a place where there's gophers, in the spring, what you'll see are what is called eskers," or winding mounds of soil, Blumstein says [PDF]. "Basically, they dig all winter long through the earth, but then they tunnel through snow, and they leave dirt in these snow tunnels."

If all this rodent talk has you now thinking about woodchucks and other woodland creatures, know that groundhogs have plenty of nicknames, including "whistle-pig" and "woodchuck," while the only nicknames for gophers appear to be bitter monikers coined by Wisconsin Badgers fans.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Watch Christmas Island’s Annual Crab Migration on Google Street View
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Google

Every year, the 45 million or so red crabs on the remote Australian territory of Christmas Island migrate en masse from their forest burrows down to the ocean to mate, and so the female crabs can release their eggs into the sea to hatch. The migration starts during the fall, and the number of crabs on the beach often peaks in December. This year, you don’t have to be on Christmas Island to witness the spectacular crustacean event, as New Atlas reports. You can see it on Google Street View.

Watching the sheer density of crabs scuttling across roads, boardwalks, and beaches is a rare visual treat. According to the Google blog, this year’s crabtacular finale is forecasted for December 16, and Parks Australia crab expert Alasdair Grigg will be there with the Street View Trekker to capture it. That is likely to be the day when crab populations on the beaches will be at their peak, giving you the best view of the action.

Crabs scuttle across the forest floor while a man with a Google Street View Trekker walks behind them.
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Google Street View is already a repository for a number of armchair travel experiences. You can digitally explore remote locations in Antarctica, recreations of ancient cities, and even the International Space Station. You can essentially see the whole world without ever logging off your computer.

Sadly, because Street View isn’t live, you won’t be able to see the migration as it happens. The image collection won’t be available until sometime in early 2018. But it’ll be worth the wait, we promise. For a sneak preview, watch Parks Australia’s video of the 2012 event here.

[h/t New Atlas]

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