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

Behavior

Introduction

Greater Flamingo is most active at night during the summer, but more active during the day in the winter season. An important part of its daily routine is devoted to foraging. It is a highly gregarious species throughout the year. The mating system may be categorized as seasonal monogamy, in which mate selection takes place in dynamic courtship groups that begin several months before breeding. The display repertory is similar in both sexes and consists of a series of ritualized displays. Mate choice seems to be based on the complexity of sexual displays. Couples divorce at the end of the breeding season or earlier if there was a breeding failure during incubation.

Locomotion

Walking, Running, Hopping, Climbing, etc.

Greater Flamingo spends most of its time walking during foraging. See Diet and Foraging.

Flight

The species has a great capacity for flight, as shown by long dispersal movements, migration, and frequency of commuting during chick provisioning (see Movements and Migration). Mean wing loading was estimated at 1.04 g/cm2 in males (n = 4) and 1.09 g/cm2 in females (n = 2), and the mean cost of flight was estimated at 81.94 watts in males (n = 3) and 108.96 watts in females (n = 2) (35).

Swimming and Diving

Greater Flamingo shows a preference for shallow wetlands, where it can feed on foot, but it is also capable of foraging in sites where water is more than 1 m deep, by swimming and up-ending. When feeding while swimming, it will submerge the head or head and neck for 5–25 s (10). See Diet and Foraging.

Chicks up to 10 d old are reluctant to enter the water, but at 12 d they take to the water readily when approached. When chicks are 50–60 d old they can swim fast (33).

Self-Maintenance

Preening, Head-Scratching, Stretching, Sunbathing, and Bathing

At Lake Elmenteita (Kenya), thousands of Greater Flamingo came daily to drink and bathe at a freshwater spring located one mile (ca. 1.5 km) from the colony. The highest concentration of birds coming to freshwater was recorded around the third week of incubation (33). A similar behavior has been observed at Fuente de Piedra Lake in southern Spain (150); flamingos started to come to drink and bathe at sites with freshwater with the establishment of the breeding colony, and concentrations were highest during the period when the adults fed the chicks in the crèche (117).

Amat et al. (17) distinguish two types of feather maintenance behavior, rubbing and preening. Rubbing has a cosmetic purpose, while preening is mainly directed to rearrangement of feathers and removal of ectoparasites. Greater Flamingo uses uropygial secretions to make its feathers more colorful (see Appearance: Plumages). When the birds use the rubbing behavior, the head is thrown back, the crown rests on the upper back, and is then rotated from side to side, sometimes after rubbing the cheeks directly on the uropygial glands (17). During preening the bird uses lateral strokes of its bill to preen the upper breast and lower neck feathers. Birds preen for 3–10% of their daily time budget (see Daily Time Budget for more details).

Sleeping and Roosting

Greater Flamingo generally rests with its head on the back and with the neck curved to one side of the body. In this way it can sleep by opening the eyes periodically as a surveillance behavior. It is able to stand on one leg, which can minimize energy demand (158). No tendency for lateralization, in which either the left or the right side was preferred, was found at the individual or population level in the Camargue (France) for either leg or neck resting postures (158).

Daily Time Budget

Feeding occurs both during the day and night, especially at dawn and dusk (10). Most of the studies on daily time budget have been done during the day, so there is little information on nighttime activity in the wild. In the Camargue (France), 70–100% of individuals were recorded feeding during night hours in summer, whereas most of the diurnal time was spent sleeping and preening. This activity pattern was in relation to diurnal movements of Artemia prey in the water column, as the prey is concentrated at the bottom of the water column during the day but is more dispersed during the night when the flamingos exhibited most feeding activity (178). During the day in Fuente de Piedra Lake (Spain), the dominant activity from October to February was sleeping (75.17% ± 18.08 SD). Between March–June, the main diurnal activity was related to breeding (48.16% ± 15.68 SD), although feeding (27.40% ± 16.42 SD) and sleeping (23.56% ± 23.51 SD) were also important. Sleeping was practically the only diurnal activity observed between July–September (99.69% ± 0.54 SD) (117).

Wintering birds in Algeria fed for most of the day (66.29 % ± 10.48 SD at Oued Righ valley and 69.09 % ± 0.95 SD at Central Haut Plateaux), followed by sleeping (10.79 % ± 1.49 SD at Oued Righ valley and 8.22 % ± 1.61 SD at Central Haut Plateaux), preening (9.11 % ± 4.89 SD at Oued Righ valley and 4.12 % ± 0.85 SD at Central Haut Plateaux), walking (6.19 % ± 3.12 SD at Oued Righ valley and 12.28 % ± 0.02 SD at Central Haut Plateaux), flying (2.31 % ± 0.01 SD at Oued Righ valley and 2.06 % ± 0.32 SD at Central Haut Plateaux), and agonistic behavior (2.81 % ± 1.85 SD at Oued Righ valley and 2.48 % ± 0.76 SD at Central Haut Plateaux) (137). Another study in Sebkhat Ouled Amara (Algeria) found that feeding was the predominant activity during winter (72.19%), followed by walking (13.85%), flight (6.06%), preening (4.88%), courtship (1.71%), and resting (1.69%). During the breeding season, most time was devoted to feeding (74.73%), followed by walking (10.79%), flight (6.29%), courtship (4.25%), preening (3.10%), and resting (0.83%) (186).

At Uchhali Lake (Pakistan), adults spent most of the day feeding (51.06%); juveniles also spent most of the day feeding, and spent more time feeding (56.51%) than adults. Adults spent more time alert (8.3%) than juveniles (4.49%) (187). At Lake Erçek (Türkiye) in summer, adults and juveniles spent 46% of their diurnal time budget feeding, 18% resting, 17% walking, 10% preening, 4% flying, 3% engaged in agonistic behavior, 1% in alarm behavior, and 1% in courtship (188). At tidal sandflats and mudflats of the Bandar Abbas coast (Iran), over 60% of birds on one day in February were observed feeding at all daytime hours, except from 08:00 and 09:00 when feeding rates were lowest; there were three peaks in feeding activity on this day: early morning (low tide), noon (high tide), and evening (low tide) (129).

Agonistic Behavior

Agonistic behavior is observed during group displays, as well as when selecting and constructing the nesting site, and during egg hatching. Low-intensity agonistic behavior is also observed in feeding grounds and roosts (33, 182, 189).

Communicative Interactions

During the onset of aggressive behavior, Greater Flamingo exhibits the Threat Display, raising the scapulars and simultaneously issuing repeated short deep calls. Another threat display is the Hooking Posture, which consists of extending the neck with the beak down and the tip pointed towards the chest. The back and scapular feathers are also ruffled in what has been called the "chrysanthemum posture" (14); this posture is a defensive display that makes the bird look bigger. When the intensity of the aggression increases, flamingos exhibit a neck swaying threat display, during which the head and neck are moved forward sinuously from side to side, occasionally pecking the rival. The back and scapular feathers are also ruffled. Submissive behavior consists of lowering the head and neck (33, 182, 189).

Territorial Behavior

Flamingos moving throughout the colony can elicit agonistic behavior from incubating birds; birds attempting to steal nest material were pecked (33).

Sexual Behavior

Mating System and Operational Sex Ratio

Greater Flamingo is seasonally monogamous. However, extra-pair mating attempts have been observed. See Extrapair Mating Behavior/Paternity.

There is no information on the operational sex ratio.

Courtship, Copulation, and Pair Bond

Courtship

Courtship in Greater Flamingo often takes place at feeding sites, as observed in the Camargue (France) (10), as well as around nesting sites, as observed at Lake Elmenteita (Kenya) (33). Courtship activities begin several months before breeding, which occurred in the Camargue (France) from November until the second half of May (10); in Fuente de Piedra Lake (Spain), courtship has been recorded between November and April (117); and in the Guadalquivir and Odiel marshes (Spain), courtship has been recorded from October–April (17). In Lake Elmenteita (Kenya), displays were observed from January to the end of March, and continued to some extent until the end of June during a second breeding wave (33).

Flamingos gather in courtship groups of about 10–40 birds in which males and females participate in similar proportions (4). In Lake Elmenteita, groups varied from 10–12 to several hundred flamingos (33). Females usually lead the courtship groups while males are located in more rear positions (MAR, MR-M, JAA, unpublished data). Groups are dynamic in their composition, with some birds regularly joining the flock and others leaving it (33). In the Camargue, group size and date were negatively correlated (190).

The courtship display repertory consists of a series of postures and movements. Using the Alert Posture Display, Greater Flamingo stands erect with the neck stretched upwards and the bill held high with the end almost horizontal. This display is often followed by the Head-flagging Display, in which birds begin calling loudly and sway their head from side to side, keeping the neck and head stretched upwards (33, 184, 191, 10, 190).

Another display is Feather Preening, which is often followed by the False-feeding Display, in which flamingos trail their bill in the water and make chomping movements before all heads come up (33, 184, 191, 10, 190). During the Marching Display, flamingos move together, first going in one direction and then in another. Some birds of the group adopt the Hooking posture, in which they extend the neck and incline it 30–60º from the vertical, while the beak is hooked down with the tip pointed toward the chest ( 184, 191, 10, 190). The Wing Salute is a posture in which the bird keeps its neck stretched up and suddenly spreads its wings (1–2 s) keeping them as much as 40º behind the plane of the body. In the Inverted Wing Salute, the neck is directed forward, the tail is held up, and the wings are flashed partially open and held above the back (1–2 s) (33, 184, 191, 10, 190). The Twist-preen Display involves birds twisting their neck and head to one side, flashing a wing downward on that side, and the appearing to preen behind the wing. In the Scratching Display, flamingos adopt a lowered position and scratch their neck with their feet behind the chin. Another display is the Wing-leg-stretch Display, in which flamingos stretch outwards one wing and the leg (1–2 seconds) (33, 184, 191, 10, 190).

It has been suggested that during group displays, birds perform displays (e.g., Head Flagging, Wing Salute, Inverted Wing Salute) in which individual differences in plumage coloration are more easily assessed by conspecifics, which may facilitate mate choice (20).

In a study carried out in the Camargue (France) during 1990–1992, the mating patterns were examined in a sample of birds in which the male and female of each pair were individually identified and the age ranged between 3–15 years (n = 56 pairs). The ages of the members of each mated pair were correlated in each of the years, suggesting that there was age-assortative mating. Age differences between pair members were not sex-related, and there was no effect of age on the date of arrival to the colony (192). A later study carried out in the Camargue examined, through focal observations, the relationship between sexual displays and age of individually banded males and females 4–34 and 5–37 years old, respectively. The number of postures observed was 2–8 per individual, and the number of transitions between postures ranged between 2–17 per individual. The sexual complexity of displays was estimated as the product between the number of different display movements and the number of transitions between movements in a behavioral sequence (5 min). In both males and females, the date within the breeding season had a linear and positive effect on the complexity of sexual displays. The complexity of sexual displays explained the mating patterns better than age and had a positive influence on the possibility of breeding. There was an increase in the complexity of sexual displays until the age of 20 years, and a decline thereafter. Age differences between pair members ranged between 0–27 years (mean 7.90 years ± 1.79 SE; n = 21), and either the male or the female was older than the other member in mated pairs. The complexity of sexual displays was higher for breeding individuals (n = 13) than for non-breeding individuals (n = 43). These results suggest that the complexity of sexual displays could be an honest signal of competitive ability (190). However, there is no information on age variation of sexual displays complexity.

Copulation

Both males and females can invite copulation, but more often the female walks and the male follows her with his neck stretched forward. The male mounts the female while flapping his wings, lowering his neck, and lengthening his head obliquely downward (182). Cloacal contact lasts for 1–2 s, and total copulation time ranges 6–10 s (10). At Lake Elmenteita (Kenya), copulation was observed near displaying flocks in breast-deep water, shallow water, or on land (33).

Pair Bond

Breeding pairs in captivity remained together during subsequent breeding seasons (191). However, in a field study in the Camargue (France), mate switching between consecutive breeding seasons was very high (98.3%, n = 60). Mate switching was also observed within breeding seasons after breeding failure during incubation and was more likely in males than females (193).

Extra-Pair Mating Behavior/Paternity

Two males were observed in Elmenteita Lake (Kenya) mating in fast succession with the same female. The first male attacked the second one when he jumped over the female and pursued him (33). Studies on paternity are lacking.

Intraspecific Egg Parasitism

Clutch size in Greater Flamingo is usually one (see Eggs), but there are many records of nests with two eggs, and even very occasionally with three (10). In the Camargue (France), Gallet (13) found 40 nests out of 2,000 containing two eggs. In Bredasdorp (South Africa), one nest out of 400 had two eggs (14). In a sample of about 900 nests from Lake Elmenteita (Kenya), there were five nests with two eggs. Examination of three of these clutches of two eggs suggested that on the basis of shell characteristics, size, shape, and stage of incubation, the two eggs had not been laid by the same female (33). In Fuente de Piedra (Spain), Rendón-Martos (117) found some sectors of the breeding colony with two eggs per nest, and when checking the content of the eggs, the developmental stages of embryos suggested that they corresponded to different clutches. Such sectors of the colony had been occupied for two months without interruption but no chicks hatched, likely due to intraspecific interference or competition for nesting sites. In addition, eggs were observed forming part of the nest structure, which suggests that individuals that outcompeted the original owners of nests occasionally removed any egg present from the bowl of the nests. Instead of intraspecific nest parasitism, it appears that two-egg clutches are the result of usurpation of nests due to the competition for nesting sites. Another possibility for the occurrence of nests with more than one egg is that eggs that were displaced outside of nests were retrieved by nearby incubating adults and added to their nests; this seems unlikely, however, since most nests are typically mud cones, though it may occur if the nests are slight depressions or are on rocky substrates (16).

Two-egg clutches may also result from females in trios laying in the same nest, or from female-female pairings (181). Greater Flamingo does not recognize its own eggs (182).

Brood Parasitism of Other Species

Information needed.

Social and Interspecific Behavior

Degree of Sociality

Greater Flamingo is a highly gregarious species throughout the year, both when forming courtship groups as well as for nesting in colonies, gathering in roosts, feeding, drinking, molting, and wintering (10).

Play

Information needed.

Nonpredatory Interspecific Interactions

Other bird species can benefit from the Greater Flamingo's feeding strategies. Slender-billed Gull (Chroicocephalus genei) has been observed feeding on invertebrates displaced by Greater Flamingo (194). In Fuente de Piedra Lake (Spain), Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) and Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus) were associated with feeding Greater Flamingo (MR-M, unpublished data).

In Fuente de Piedra Lake, species that associated with breeding Greater Flamingo were Lesser Flamingo (Phoeniconaias minor), Gull-billed Tern (Gelochelidon nilotica) , Pied Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta), Black-headed Gull, and Yellow-legged Gull (Larus michahellis) (MR-M, unpublished data). At Lake Elmenteita (Kenya), Great White Pelican (Pelecanus onocrotalus) showed a tendency to associate with breeding Greater Flamingo; when flamingos moved to a new breeding site, the pelicans followed them (195). In Bredasdorp (South Africa), Gray-hooded Gull (Chroicocephalus cirrocephalus), African Spoonbill (Platalea alba), and African Sacred Ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus) were associated with breeding Greater Flamingo (14). At West Kiaione Island (Banc d’Arguin National Park, Mauritania), Great Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo), Long-tailed Cormorant (Microcarbo africanus), Gray Heron (Ardea cinerea), Western Reef-Heron (Egretta gularis), Gull-billed Tern, Caspian Tern (Hydroprogne caspia), West African Crested Tern (Thalasseus albididorsalis), and Bridled Tern (Onychoprion anaethetus) were associated with breeding Greater Flamingo (196). Bird species sharing islets for breeding may associate because of similar microhabitat requirements. In addition, the anti-predatory behavior of some islet-nesting species could benefit Greater Flamingo through early warning of the approaching of predators, and even by harassment of predators.

Predation

Kinds of Predators

In the Camargue (France), Yellow-legged Gull (Larus michahellis) is the most important predator of Greater Flamingo (197), although terrestrial mammals such as red fox (Vulpes vulpes), European badger (Meles meles), and wild boar (Sus scrofa) may prey at accessible breeding colonies (198, 199). A Greater Flamingo was found in the Camargue in a sample of pellets from Eurasian Eagle-Owl (Bubo bubo) collected between 1994–2018 (n = 435 prey), and 19 adult Greater Flamingo were predated by Eurasian Eagle-Owl in the Camargue between 2017–2018 (200).

In the Guadalquivir marshes (Spain), predation of eggs by wild boar, Yellow-legged Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus), Eurasian Griffon (Gyps fulvus), Black Kite (Milvus migrans), and Red Kite (Milvus milvus) has been recorded (201, 202, 119). In Fuente de Piedra Lake (Spain), red foxes, badgers, feral dogs (Canis familiaris), and Lesser Black-backed Gulls prey upon Greater Flamingo adults and chicks and can cause colony desertion (117, 203). Also in Fuente de Piedra, moribund and dead chicks are consumed by Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres), Lesser Black-backed Gull, and red fox (117). At El Hondo Natural Park (Spain), a Greater Flamingo was consumed by a Greater Spotted Eagle (Clanga clanga) (204). In Azerbaijan, Greater Flamingo that were weakened during a cold spell were preyed upon by Hooded Crow (Corvus cornix) (205).

In Algeria, predation by Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus) was recorded at Ezzemoul (76), and by golden jackal (Canis aureus) at Safioune (78). In Skeleton Coast National Park (Namibia), Greater Flamingo was found in the diet of lion (Panthera leo) that specialized in marine prey (206). In Sua Pan (Bostwana), Greater Flamingo and Lesser Flamingo were preyed upon by black-backed jackal (Canis mesomelas) and brown hyaena (Hyaena brunnea) at night, and Lappet-faced Vulture (Torgos tracheliotos), Tawny Eagle (Aquila rapax), and Steppe Eagle during the day (207).

Predation by African Fish-Eagle (Haliaeetus vocifer) has been also recorded on a sub-adult bird (208). At Lake Elmenteita (Kenya), Marabou Stork (Leptoptilos crumenifer) preyed upon both eggs and chicks (195, 67), African Fish-Eagle was observed preying upon chicks, and Tawny Eagle and Gray-hooded Gull were observed scavenging eggs (33). At Bredasdorp (South Africa), a Kelp Gull (Larus dominicanus) predated a very small Greater Flamingo chick (14). In Aftout es Saheli (Mauritania), at a breeding colony of Greater Flamingo and Lesser Flamingo, there was an increase in the number of chicks and adults of both flamingo species that were predated when water levels decreased. Monitoring and predator deterring and trapping devices around the colony identified golden jackal, side-striped jackal (Canis adustus), pale fox (Vulpes pallida), striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena), honey badger (Mellivora capensis), an unidentified mongoose species, and warthogs (Phacochoerus africanus) (70).

Disturbance by Marabou Stork can be more severe than predation, as it can cause entire colonies to be deserted (195). The loss of the flamingo colony at Elmenteita Lake due to Marabou Stork was not permanent: disturbance was severe in 1956 but no effects were detected in 1957 (33).

Manner of Depredation

In the Camargue (France), Yellow-legged Gull nests on the same islands as Greater Flamingo. When gulls predate flamingos, they either take eggs or chicks directly from the nest, or they prey on larger chicks in crèches. When directly predating a nest, a gull will approach an adult flamingo that is incubating an egg or brooding a chick, peck it to get it to move away, and directly take the egg or small chick from the nest. When predating chicks in crèches, small chicks are pecked on the head and nape, while larger chicks are often drowned, eaten in the water, or dragged out of it. Gulls generally attack alone (68.8%), but large chicks are often attacked by up to nine individuals. Acts of predation lasted 3.5 min on average (range 0.5-11 min, n = 18). Most (61.5%) nest predation events took place in peripheral areas of the colony; similarly, only chicks located in the periphery of crèches were attacked; 42% of predation attempts were successful (197).

In Fuente de Piedra Lake (Spain), adult Yellow-legged Gull tended to prey on young flamingo chicks, while every year immature gulls, and in some years Egyptian Vulture, consumed abandoned eggs (117). A small number of adult gulls (4–6 individuals) walking around the colony forced the movement of the crèche across the island until young (less than two weeks of age) or injured chicks were separated from the group (MAR, MR-M, JAA, unpublished data). Gulls in flight captured solitary chicks by the head and threw them to the ground, where they fed only on their intestines (197), leaving the rest of the body intact. These carcasses of the chicks served as food for the gulls later in the season, when the food was scarce.

In Sua Pan (Bostwana), Lappet-faced Vulture would fly over the crèches and then pursue escaping chicks on land; these attacks continued until fledging, a period of about three months. After the flamingo chicks fledged, groups of 4–7 Lappet-faced Vulture were observed hunting fledging flamingos in the air (207).

In Elmenteita Lake (Kenia), breeding Greater Flamingo occupied several islands. Four Marabou Stork arrived at Pelican Island, causing the abandonment of some nests, and snapping at the newly hatched chicks. Later, the number of storks increased to nine, and standing with spread wings or walking slowly, caused complete desertion of breeding Greater Flamingo on that island. The storks flew to another island to repeat the process; during a week, some 17 Marabou Storks caused the near complete loss of the Greater Flamingo colony on all islands (195).

Response to Predators

Vigilance patterns are poorly studied for this species. It regularly raises its heads to scan the environment for potential predators, so increasing group size can decrease individual investment in vigilance (10), but see Boukhriss et al. (209).

The Hooking Threat Display (see Agonistic Behavior) was performed by an incubating flamingo to discourage the approach of a Marabou Stork (33).

As a reaction to Yellow-legged Gulls, chicks in crèches gather in compact masses (197). In Fuente de Piedra Lake (Spain), the crèches harassed by Yellow-legged Gulls moved to the vicinity of colonies of Gull-billed Tern (Gelochelidon nilotica), which would then fend off the attacking gulls (MR-M, personal observation).

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