Greater flamingos are one of the world’s most iconic avian species and raising awareness of this unique species is important. Learn about greater flamingo habitat, diet, and breeding, and potential threats facing these beautiful birds.
Greater flamingos are the largest of the six flamingo species and the most widespread. Classified as “Least Concern” (LC) by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, they occur in Africa, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, and southern Europe. Despite this classification, like all common species, they have little protection from development encroaching on their habitat. Their populations are being monitored, and conservation sites have been identified should the species begin to decline. Programs are underway in Europe to raise public awareness, protect breeding and feeding wetlands, and warden against disturbance.
A small flock of greater flamingos on the move on Lake Nakuru.
Characteristics of the Greater Flamingo
Standing 110 – 150cm (43in – 59 in) tall and weighing 2 – 4 kg (4.4 – 8.8 lb), they are often seen feeding among smaller lesser flamingos in their African range. They are much larger, with the greatest height for lesser flamingos being 90cm. Greater flamingo plumage is pale pink with whitish-yellow eyes, and the bill is narrow and pink, with a distinct black tip. In contrast, lesser flamingos have a very dark deep bill and red eyes. Both species have red legs and black flight feathers, which are largely hidden if the wings are folded, and the wings have deeper salmon coloured feathers that are most obvious in flight. Greater flamingos have a wingspan of 1.4 and 1.7 metres and fly with outstretched necks and legs extended behind. Chicks are born with grey plumage and take two to three years to develop adult plumage.
Greater flamingos in flight over Lake Nakuru, Kenya.
Greater Flamingo Habitat
Like all flamingo species, the greater flamingo lives and feeds on highly alkaline soda lakes, coastal lagoons, and mudflats. Gathering in flocks that may vary from a dozen birds to thousands, the birds move in unison when threatened as this behaviour helps to protect them from predators, especially when their heads are submerged while feeding. Birds in cooler areas will migrate to warmer areas in winter. Threats to their survival include contamination of their habitat and water sources by bacteria and toxins from industrial runoff and disturbance of their nesting sites.
Greater Flamingo Diet and Feeding Habits
All flamingos are filter feeders, sucking water through their bills to trap algae, shrimp, small crustaceans, molluscs, and tiny fish. Wading in shallow water, greater flamingos use their feet to stir up the mud containing potential food. Their bill, containing thousands of rigid microscopic plates known as lamellae, is used upside down to filter the water stirred up by their feet. Their diet is rich in alpha and beta carotenoid pigments, which, when digested, are deposited into the skin and feathers resulting in pink colouration. Birds with deficient diets will lose their pink plumage, skin and beak colour, and birds feeding chicks will often be paler in colour.
Diana Andersen is a professional photographer with a Bachelor of Arts in Design. Major Australian galleries and collections hold her award-winning work. After years as a practising designer and a lecturer in design, Diana turned her attention to her other passion, animals, and became a zookeeper working in conservation. A published author, Diana initially used photography to illustrate her books, but it has since become a passion. Diana founded Animalinfo Publications in 2007.
A group of greater flamingos. Younger birds are paler with grey plumage.
Breeding Habits of the Greater Flamingo
Although they are physically mature by two to three years of age, greater flamingos may not breed until they are five or six years old. Breeding occurs from May to June, though they may miss a season if food is scarce and seasonal conditions are not favourable. Greater flamingos breed in colonies that may include large numbers of breeding pairs that are monogamous. It is thought that greater flamingos pair for life, but birds will find a new partner if they lose their mate.
Elaborate courtship displays that include honking, neck stretching, and wing flashing precede nest building. Most bird species have a uropygial gland, referred to as a preen gland, and birds use secretions from this gland to maintain their feathers. In flamingos, these secretions also contain carotenoids that enhance their pink colouring. During the breeding season, greater flamingos will increase the frequency of spreading these secretions to improve their colour and attract a mate.
Pairs build a mud nest together in shallow water offshore with a depression in the top. Nests are built approximately 1.5metres apart, offering protection from predators while avoiding aggression from neighbouring pairs. A single chalky egg is laid with both birds incubating in alternating shifts. Eggs hatch after approximately 29 days and are fed a regurgitated liquid diet from the crop of both parents, referred to as “crop milk”. Chicks can walk after a week and fledge at approximately 8 weeks of age. Chicks gather in creches under the supervision of a few adults allowing parent birds to feed.