SPECIES

Greater Flamingo Phoenicopterus roseus Scientific name definitions

Alfredo Salvador, Miguel Á. Rendón, Juan A. Amat, and Manuel Rendón-Martos
Version: 2.0 — Published August 12, 2022

Plumages, Molts, and Structure

Plumages

Greater Flamingo has 11 full-length primaries, numbered p1 (proximal) to p11 (distal), with p11 usually the longest; 21–23 secondaries, numbered s1 (distal) to s18 (proximal), including 4–5 tertials, numbered t1 (proximal) to t5 (distal); and 14 rectrices, numbered from r1 (central) to r7 (distal) on each side of the tail. Flamingos are diastataxic (see 5), indicating that through evolution, a secondary has been lost between what we now term s4 and s5. Geographic variation in appearance is slight and most authorities recognize no subspecies (see Systematics: Geographic Variation); the following is applicable to all populations globally.

See Molts for molt and plumage terminology. The following is based primarily on detailed plumage descriptions of Chapman (6), Palmer (7), Oberholser (8), Kear and Duplaix-Hall (9), Cramp and Simmons (4), and Johnson and Cézilly (10); see Johnson et al. (11), Shannon (12), and Pyle (1) for criteria to determine age. Sexes similar in all plumages. Definitive appearance is acquired at the Third or Fourth Basic Plumage.

Natal Down

Natal down persists in nestlings and during the crèches at nesting colonies. The general coloration of newly-hatched chicks is whitish, but soon becomes pale ash-gray. On underparts and sides of nape, the down is whitish. There is a second down plumage at about 10 d of age which is darker gray (13, 14, 11, 10). The only pigment in the down of small chicks is melanin (15).

Juvenile (First Basic) Plumage

Present for approximately 3–5 mo following fledging. Head, neck, back and breast primarily grayish brown; rump, rectrices, and lower underparts whiter or white. Ornamental scapular plumes and upperwing secondary coverts pale grayish (sometimes tinged pinkish) with distinct dark centers, forming overall streaked, scaled, or mottled appearance. Upperwing primary coverts brown with pinkish or whitish bases (see Fig. 276 in 1); primaries and secondaries brown. Underwing coverts and axillars whitish to pale pink, the underwing greater coverts with distinct brown centers.

Formative Plumage

Present primarily 4–10 months following fledging. Similar to Juvenile Plumage but scattered whitish to pale pinkish formative feathers occur, most visibly among scapulars and upperwing lesser coverts. Head and neck become whiter through combination of feather bleaching and molt. Juvenile remiges, most upperwing coverts, and underwing coverts retained and are as described above.

Second Basic Plumage

Present primarily 11–23 mo following fledging. Body plumage variable, from resembling that of Formative Plumage but averaging whiter to resembling that of Definitive Basic Plumage but with some grayish mottling to head or upperwing coverts. Upperwing primary coverts usually dull pinkish with dark bases or fringing (see Fig. 276 in 1). Juvenile underwing greater coverts often white with dark centers and worn, or sometimes replaced and mixed brown and pinkish. Primaries and secondaries replaced, blackish, and broad as in Definitive Basic Plumage. Bill and iris colors intermediate between those typical of birds in Juvenile and Definitive Basic Plumages (see Bare Parts).

Third Basic Plumage

Present primarily 24–36 mo following fledging. Similar to Definitive Basic Plumage and some individuals likely inseparable. Some individuals appear to retain some juvenile underwing greater coverts, very worn and showing dark centers, or replaced coverts may be dark with white fringes. Upperwing primary coverts (especially proximal feathers) may show some dark brown to the bases. Bill and iris colors may average duller than in older birds (see Bare Parts). Some birds in Fourth Basic Plumage (age 37–48 mo) may still show some of these characters but, if so, separation of Third and Fourth Basic Plumages may not be possible by appearance alone.

Definitive Basic Plumage

Head, neck, and upper breast white, variably washed pink, from little or none to brighter pink. Back, ornamental scapulars, rump, tail, and lower underparts white, sometimes tinged pinkish, especially the outer rectrices. Upperwing secondary and primary coverts and tertials variably bright crimson to mottled pale salmon and white, likely dependent of carotenoid application (see below), often brighter on the lesser coverts, the primary coverts without brown. Primaries and remaining outer secondaries black and broad at the tips. Underwing lesser and median coverts and axillars variably bright crimson to mottled pink and white, similar to upperwing coverts. Underwing greater and primary coverts black, without white fringing.

There has been some confusion regarding seasonal changes in plumage coloration in Greater Flamingo since these changes were not obviously related to molting. It was observed in zoos that the plumage coloration of adult flamingos rearing chicks faded quite quickly, and this was linked to the feeding of chicks with a crop secretion rich in carotenoids (16). However, observations in southern Spain indicated that during the courtship display season (October–April), the plumage was more colorful, and, similar to the observations in zoos, it faded when the adults started to feed their chicks (17). During the displaying period, flamingos were observed more often than in other seasons rubbing their cheeks on their uropygial glands (which were pigmented with carotenoids) and transferring the pigments, mainly canthaxanthin, from these glands to the plumage by rubbing the cheeks on the neck, breast, and anterior back feathers. The plumage became more colorful when the quantity of pigments applied over them was greater, providing evidence of cosmetic coloration (17). As a result of cosmetic coloration, the plumage of females is more colorful than that of males (18, 19). Individuals with more colorful plumage initiated nesting earlier than individuals with paler plumage, which may have a survival value for their offspring. The use of these pigmented secretions may function as a signal amplifier by increasing the perceptibility of plumage color, and hence of individual quality (17, 20, 21).

As the color of feathers faded quickly once shed, it was puzzling how flamingos maintained their color (16). A study on birds from the Camargue showed that once carotenoid pigments were no longer spread over the feathers for cosmetic purposes, the color faded (21). Cosmetic coloration is also used, to a much lesser extent, outside the courtship period. This suggests that plumage color may also be an important signal during agonistic interactions at foraging sites at any time of the year, possibly signaling individual status, quality, and body condition at individual sites (22).

Molts

Molt and plumage terminology follows Humphrey and Parkes (23), as modified by Howell et al. (24). Greater Flamingo exhibits a Complex Basic Strategy (cf. 24, 25), including incomplete-to-complete prebasic molts and a limited preformative molt but no prealternate molts (26, 8, 10, 1); reports of prealternate molts (e.g., 27, 28, 16) appear to have been based on protracted preformative molts and/or topical application of carotenoids (21; see Plumages).

The molt of the Greater Flamingo in the wild has not been studied in detail. Most information comes from Eurasian populations and/or birds in captivity. There is little information on African populations.

Prejuvenile Molt

Complete, in the nest or near natal territories; fledglings often form large crèches during the Prejuvenile Molt.

Prefomative Molt

Limited to partial, occurring primarily at 4–8 mo of age. Includes a few to many body feathers and no to all lesser coverts, but few if any greater or median coverts and no primaries, secondaries, or rectrices (1).

Second, Third, and Definitive Prebasic Molts

These molts appear to vary from incomplete to complete. In Northern Hemisphere breeding populations, the complete molt usually begins in July and continues until November–December (28). In the Camargue (France), Greater Flamingos were observed with some primaries and secondaries missing from May through September, although the molt peaked in mid-July (10). The timing, frequency, and completeness vary with the age of individuals and whether or not they have bred in the year (16); at Lake Urmia (Iran), non-breeding flamingos started a complete molt three weeks earlier than breeding flamingos (29). Molts commence with the median and then other upperwing secondary coverts. Some or all juvenile underwing greater coverts and/or axillars may be retained during the Second Prebasic Molt and may be replaced roughly every other year beginning with the Third Prebasic Molt, although some juvenile underwing greater coverts may occasionally be retained through this molt as well; study needed.

Molt of primaries and secondaries appears to be rapid, approaching synchronous; individuals can be flightless for four weeks during synchronous molt. This molting mode has been observed in the Camargue (11), Lake Urmia (Iran) (30), Lake Tengiz (Kazakhstan) (28), and Lake Fuente de Piedra and Odiel marshes (Spain) (MAR, MR-M, unpublished data), although in South Africa, the molt of primaries was observed to take place distally from p1–p11 (31). Observations in the Camargue indicate that the type of molt of flight feathers is variable, with progressive molt being most common, but flightless birds are also observed during simultaneous molt (11). A biennial wing-molt recorded in some captive individuals (32, 26) has not been observed in the wild (11). For simultaneous molt to occur, water level and food availability in wetlands should be high (10).

Bare Parts

Bill

The bill of the young is lead-gray with a blackish tip, and in the adult, the bill is pink with a black tip (4). For a description of the unique bill morphology, see Diet and Foraging: Bill Structure. In a newly-hatched chick, the bill is bright red; at 10 d there is a progressive darkening of the bill, and at 14 d the bill is black. After 39 d, the mandible reportedly can have a pinkish tinge, and, after the chicks are 50 d old, the bill has been reported to be pinkish (14), although usually the bill remains yellowish to grayish for the first 1–2 years (1). In adults, the pink appears to brighten and become more intense during prebreeding than during molting periods. There is individual variation in the pattern of the upper edge of the black tip in adults (10); the dark bill tip is reduced and indistinct in juveniles and gradually becomes more extensive, blacker, and more distinct within the first 2–3 years of age (see Figure 275 in 1).

Iris and Facial Skin

The iris is black in the nestling, brown in juveniles, and gradually lightens to yellowish during the first 1–2 years; in adults, the iris bright yellow (4, 1). Bare skin on the sides of the face is red in the nestling, lead-gray in the juvenile, and pale pink in the adult (4).

Tarsi and Toes

In the newly-hatched chick, tarsi and feet are pink (33) or bright red (14); by 5 d old tarsi and feet are dark brown and pink-tinged (33), and at 7 d they are dark brown or black (33); at 10 d there is a progressive darkening, and at 14 days they are black (14). The red coloration of the tarsi, as well as that of the bill, of newly-hatched chicks is due to the presence of hemoglobin beneath the skin, while the dark coloration of the legs, feet, and bill of chicks and juveniles is due to melanin (15). Legs and feet are grayish in juveniles, gradually becoming dull then brighter pink during the first 1–2 years of age (1). The color of tarsi and feet is bright pink in the adult (4). The pigments that tinge the bare parts of the adult Greater Flamingo have not been determined.

Measurements

Linear Measurements

Males are larger than females (13, 4). The tarsus of males is 20% longer than that of females (34).

Total Length

Male and female, range 120–145 cm (4).

Wingspan

  • male and female, range 140–187 cm (4, 10).
  • male, Etosha, Namibia: mean 169.2 cm ± 4.3 SD, range 164–175, n = 3 (35).
  • female, Etosha, Namibia: mean 150.4 cm ± 1.0 SD, range 149–151, n = 3 (35).

Wing Length

  • male, various parts summer and winter range: mean 428 mm, range 406–464, n = 8 (4).
  • male, Camargue (France), January: mean 433.29 mm ± 13.57 SD, n = 1,111 (10).
  • male, southern Spain, June–September: mean 418.59 mm ± 13.25 SD, range 395–438, n = 17 (MAR, MR-M, JAA, unpublished data).
  • male, Etosha, Namibia: mean 419.7 mm ± 12.9 SD, range 405–435, n = 4 (35).
  • male, captivity: mean 429 mm ± 14 SD, n = 23 (36).
  • female, various parts summer and winter range: mean 380 mm, range 360–396, n = 6 (4).
  • female, Camargue (France), January: mean 400.30 mm ± 12.90 SD, n = 669 (10).
  • female, southern Spain, June–September: mean 398.11 mm ± 10.28 SD, range 380–416, n = 27 (MAR, MR-M, JAA, unpublished data).
  • female, Etosha, Namibia: mean 395.0 mm ± 9.6 SD, range 382–405, n = 3 (35).
  • female, captivity: mean 392 mm ± 17 SD, n = 36 (36).

Tail Length

  • male, various parts summer and winter range: mean 156 mm, range 144–167, n = 8 (4).
  • male, Etosha, Namibia: mean 157.5 mm ± 9.0 SD, range 145–170, n = 4 (35).
  • female, various parts summer and winter range: mean 135 mm, range 130–138, n = 6 (4).
  • female, Namibia and Botswana: mean 140.0 mm, range 135–145, n = 3 (37).
  • female, Etosha, Namibia: mean 140.0 mm ± 4.1 SD, range 135–145, n = 3 (35).

Bill Length

  • male, various parts summer and winter range: mean 121 mm, range 117–125, n = 7 (4).
  • male, southern Spain, June–September: mean 124.47 mm ± 4.90 SD, range 116–132, n = 17 (MAR, MR-M, JAA, unpublished data).
  • male, Etosha, Namibia: mean 125.2 mm ± 1.5 SD, range 123–127, n = 4 (35).
  • male, captivity: mean 121 mm ± 4 SD, n = 23 (36).
  • female, various parts summer and winter range: mean 116 mm, range 112–121, n = 7 (4).
  • female, southern Spain, June–September: mean 120.37 mm ± 5.16 SD, range 107–131, n = 27 (MAR, MR-M, JAA, unpublished data).
  • female, Etosha, Namibia: mean 121.3 mm ± 3.7 SD, range 117–126, n = 3 (35).
  • female, captivity: mean118 mm ± 4 SD, n = 36 (36).

Tarsus Length

  • male, various parts summer and winter range: mean 323 mm, range 291–373, n = 8 (4).
  • male, Camargue (France), January: mean 338.12 mm ± 23.12 SD, n = 1,110 (10).
  • male, southern Spain, June–September: mean 309.29 mm ± 32.88 SD, range 266–375, n = 17 (MAR, MR-M, JAA, unpublished data).
  • male, Etosha, Namibia: mean 303.8 mm ± 11.1 SD, range 289–318, n = 4 (35).
  • male, captivity: mean 337 mm ± 24 SD, n = 23 (36).
  • female, various parts summer and winter range: mean 259 mm, range 232–280, n = 7 (4).
  • female, Camargue (France), January: mean 280.12 mm ± 20.82 SD, n = 666 (10).
  • female, southern Spain, June–September: mean 274.74 mm ± 17.83 SD, range 245–317, n = 27 (MAR, MR-M, JAA, unpublished data).
  • female, Etosha, Namibia: mean 270.0 mm ± 10.8 SD, range 289–318, n = 3 (35).
  • female, captivity: mean 290 mm ± 21 SD, n = 36 (36).

Mass

  • male, Camargue (France): mean 3,579 g ± 340 SD, range 3,000–4,100, n = 13 (13).
  • male, Camargue (France), January (birds found dead): mean 2,727,07 g ± 286.96 SD, range 2,500–4,450, n = 737 (10).
  • male, southern Spain, June–September: mean 2,952.94 g ± 444.49 SD, range 2,450–4,100, n = 17 (MAR, MR-M, JAA, unpublished data).
  • male, Guadalquivir marshes (Spain), March (birds lead poisoned): mean 2,614.44 g ± 245,45 SD, range 2,000–2,900, n = 9 (38).
  • male, Etosha, Namibia: mean 2,855 g ± 152.4 SD, range 2,630–3,000, n = 4 (35).
  • male, captivity: mean 2,6 kg ± 0.3 SD, n = 23 (36).
  • female, Camargue (France): mean 2,525 g ± 413 SD, range 2,100–3,300, n = 12 (13).
  • female, Camargue (France), January (birds found dead): mean 2,064.64 g ± 240.38 SD, n = 494 (10).
  • female, southern Spain, June–September: mean 2,556.30 g ± 232.12 SD, range 2,150–3150, n = 27 (MAR, MR-M, JAA, unpublished data).
  • female, Etosha, Namibia: mean 2,573 g ± 193.4 SD, range 2,300–2,720, n = 3 (35).
  • female, captivity: mean 2,2 kg ± 0.3 SD, n = 36 (36).

Recommended Citation

Salvador, A., M. Á. Rendón, J. A. Amat, and M. Rendón-Martos (2022). Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus), version 2.0. In Birds of the World (S. M. Billerman, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.grefla3.02