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

Breeding

Introduction

The reproductive phenology of Greater Flamingo is closely related to rainfall during the months preceding laying. There is one brood, but if it fails during incubation, there may be additional attempts. Greater Flamingo usually breed on muddy substrates, where mud is scraped to construct a mound nest that is elevated above ground level to prevent flooding; the species has also been recorded breeding on sandy or rocky substrates. Clutch size is one. Incubation is carried out by both sexes and lasts 27–36 d. The chicks are precocial and semi-nidifugous and are fed by parents on regurgitated liquid secretion from the upper digestive tract glands. Chicks leave the nest at 7–10 d, and at 10–12 d aggregate in crèches that may include some adults. Fledging occurs at 71–98 d, and chicks leave the breeding site at 80–139 d.

Phenology

Egg-laying dates in Greater Flamingo show geographic variation. A geographical index, computed as the sum of latitude, longitude, and altitude of breeding locations in northwest Africa, the Mediterranean region, and Asia, showed a positive correlation with mean laying dates, indicating that at higher latitudes and elevations, egg laying date occurred later (10).

The most important factor determining whether breeding occurs at a seasonal wetland is rainfall during the months preceding laying, which affects the water levels in wetlands and determines both the isolation and protection of colonies from terrestrial predators, as well as food availability during the breeding season (117). Indeed, to trigger breeding, a minimum amount of precipitation at each site is needed: in Fuente de Piedra Lake (Spain) between 1975–1989, there was breeding when the average precipitation between October and February was 339 mm (n = 9); there was no breeding during those years when the average precipitation was 192 mm (n = 7) (203). Further, in this seasonal wetland, between 1984–2007, there was breeding when the mean water depth in March and April was >50 cm; there was no breeding in years with mean water levels <40 cm (210). Minimum precipitation values in the months before laying have been estimated at 400 mm at Etosha Pan (Namibia) (211) and 300 mm in Tunisia (10).

Pair Formation

Courtship may occur at wintering sites, up to 700 km from breeding sites (212). In the Camargue (France), courtship groups last almost six months, between November and May (10). In Fuente de Piedra Lake, courtship was observed in the first fortnight of January when flamingos started to arrive at the lake to breed, and continued into February (203). In other sites in southern Spain (Guadalquivir and Odiel marshes), courtship groups were recorded between October and April (17). Greater Flamingo in captivity in Switzerland started courtship displays in autumn, soon after breeding, and continued through the following months (212). There is scarce information about courtship phenology outside Europe. Courtship was observed at Lake Elmenteita (Kenya) from January to June (33).

Copulations take place in the Camargue (France) between January and May (10). In the case of nest losses, copulations in captive birds may occur a few hours after nest failure, without courtship displays (213). Copulations at Lake Elmenteita (Kenya) were recorded between 19 and 21 April (33).

Nest Building

In Fuente de Piedra Lake, the occupation of the colony and the construction of nests has been observed from the first half of February to the first half of March (203). In southern Spain, the establishment of breeding colonies met the criteria of a despotic distribution, in which older and dominant individuals settled at the best sites and started to lay earlier than younger, less dominant individuals, which were forced to use suboptimal sites. The colony sites occupied first had higher breeding success (143). Related to this pattern of older, dominant individuals settling on the best sites and laying earlier than younger, less dominant individuals, the timing of settlement of individual flamingos at the Fuente de Piedra colony was also age-related. The relationship between the probability of settlement and date of settlement was negative for individuals > 10 years old, but positive for individuals < 8 years old. The relationship between both variables for individuals 8–10 years old was not strong in either direction (143).

Egg Laying

At Fuente de Piedra Lake, there were interannual variations between 1984–1994 in the dates of the first clutches laid in a colony, which ranged from late February to late March (117). There was also variation in how long the egg laying period lasted in a given breeding season, being longer in years with high water levels at feeding areas located in the Guadalquivir marshes (117). In the eight years in which Greater Flamingo nested both at both Fuente de Piedra Lake and in the marshes of the Guadalquivir in southern Spain, the mean date of first clutches were earlier at Fuente de Piedra (16 March ± 15 d SD) than at the Guadalquivir (17 April ± 16 d SD) (143).

In the Camargue, the timing of breeding is related to flood conditions in the vicinity of the colony (10); the first clutches are laid in April, and the laying period can last 30–74 d (193). In Türkiye, laying occurred from early April to mid-June (84). At Ezzemoul (Algeria), egg-laying lasted from mid-May to early June (75). In Tunisia, egg-laying was recorded between 10 February and 15 July (72). In Morocco, laying was observed at Iriki from the end of March to early May (106). In Mauritania, laying occurred between late February and mid-June in the Banc d’Arguin National Park and between September and February in the Aftout Es Saheli (69). At both Lake Elmenteita and Lake Nakuru (Kenya), laying was recorded every month except January, September, and December (33, 195). In Bredasdorp (South Africa), laying lasted from early October to late December (14). In Sua Pan (Bostwana), laying was recorded in November (115), while in Etosha Pan (Namibia), laying was also initiated in November, but occurred most often in January–February (112, 211); at both sites laying continued in waves until August (112, 211, 115). In Great Rann of Cutch (India), Greater Flamingo nests in the monsoon season, between July and October (214). In Afghanistan, laying takes place between May and July (215, 216).

First Brood

There is one brood, but if it fails during incubation, there may be additional breeding attempts. In the Camargue (France), during 1991, 481 and 436 individually identified males and females, respectively, were recorded breeding; of these, 170 males and 94 females were recorded attempting a second clutch after failure of the first, and among these, 12 males and 1 female were recorded attempting third clutch after a second failure. Time from failure to relaying varied from 15 to 35 d, and males were more likely than females to renest after failure (193). Up to six breeding attempts within a season have been recorded in captivity, with relaying intervals of 7–15 d (212).

Second/Later Broods

In Lake Elmenteita (Kenya), two breeding periods were observed in 1956–1957, one between October and February and the other between April and August (33). It has been suggested that the same birds were involved during the second breeding as in the first (33). In Margherita di Savoia saltpans (Italy), reproduction was recorded during 1996 in spring and, in lesser numbers, in autumn (217). Since birds were not marked, it’s not entirely clear if the same birds were actually involved in both waves of breeding.

Nest Site

Breeding colonies are located in wetlands with water levels high enough to protect them from terrestrial predators (117, 10). Greater Flamingo usually breeds on muddy substrates, even in very shallow water, where mud is scraped to construct a mound nest elevated above ground level to prevent flooding (see Nest). However, the species has also been recorded breeding on sandy substrates, as in Kazakhstan, and on rocky substrates, where no nests are constructed, as in the Banc d’Arguin (Mauritania), Lake Urmia (Iran), and Lake Elmenteita (Kenya) (68, 33, 10).

Nest

Construction Process

Males and females both participate in nest building, which takes place a few days before laying (10). The nest is usually initiated by the male, by scraping mud toward himself, while the role of the female increases throughout nest-building (191). Some additional construction and maintenance may continue during incubation, with parents increasing the height of the nest if the water level around the nest rises (MAR, MR-M, unpublished data). Nest building has been observed late in the breeding season and even after the breeding season, likely by immature birds, but no laying has been recorded in such cases (218, 10).

Structure and Composition

Generally, Greater Flamingo builds a truncated cone-shaped mud nest. The size and height of the nest depends on the availability of mud in the surroundings. The species is also able to nest directly on the ground. On rocky islands in Lake Elmenteita (Kenya), nests were similar to those of gulls or shorebirds, and were made of feathers, grasses, stones, and some mud brought in the bill from the nearby lake. Some eggs are also laid in hollows (33). In Bredasdorp (South Africa), nest mounds were composed of sandy silt which contained some pebbles and feathers (14). There is usually no lining in the nest (13).

Dimensions

Mud availability can explain nest dimensions. In Bredasdorp, the first nests constructed in a colony were larger, whereas those built later were lower and flatter, and many eggs were laid on flat stones (14).

In general, nests built in muddy substrates have a height of 30 cm, a base diameter 50–60 cm, and a diameter around the rim of 25–40 cm (32). The mud nests built in the Camargue (France) have a diameter of 30–35 cm and a height of 30–40 cm, with a circular trench around the base of the nest up to approximately 20 cm deep. In the Camargue, nests on sand may be only 10–15 cm high (13). In Garaet Ezzemoul (Algeria), nests had an internal diameter of 20.0 cm ± 2.1 SD, an external diameter of 36.9 cm ± 2.9 SD, and nest height of 11.9 cm ± 3.8 SD (n = 120); diameter in this study was measured at the top of the nest (75). In Bredasdorp, mean nest dimensions were as follows: cup diameter 33.5 cm ± 2.8 SD, base diameter 44.4 cm ± 4.05 SD, and nest height 7.6 cm ± 2.8 SD (n = 25) (14).

The mean mass of mud conical nests is about 52 kg (16).

Maintenance or Reuse of Nests

Nest reuse by different pairs within breeding seasons may be frequent, as in Fuente de Piedra Lake, where an average of 17.00% ± 21.87% SD of nests were reoccupied each year from 1985–1994 (range 0–56%, n = 7) (117). Nest reuse between breeding seasons is also frequent, when old nests are repaired (14, 112, 117).

Eggs

Greater Flamingo is considered a partial capital breeder, in which the resources for egg formation are acquired both in wintering and breeding sites (219).

Shape

Eggs have an elongate oval shape (220, 14). The estimated values of elongation, pointedness, and polar asymmetry for eggs are 1.748, 0.539, and 1.348, respectively (221).

Size

Across multiple populations, the mean length and width of eggs was 88.8 x 54.6 mm (n = 100; 27). Across its range, egg size does not vary much in different populations. In the Camargue, mean egg size was 89.6 mm (range 81.1–105.0) x 55.2 mm (range 49.6–61.6) (n = 120; 222); in Garaet Ezzemoul (Algeria), mean egg size was 89.5 mm ± 4.6 SD x 54.0 mm ± 2.0 SD (n = 60; 75); in Lake Elmenteita (Kenya), mean egg size was 89.7 x 56.4 mm (n = 25; 33); in Lake Urmia (Iran), mean egg size was 88 x 52 mm (n = 38; 29); and in Bredasdorp (South Africa), mean egg size was 88.3 cm ± 6.3 SD x 53.9 cm ± 2.1 SD (n = 95; 14).

Mass

In a sample from the Camargue, mean egg mass was 172.9 g (range 153–195 g, n = 16) (10).

Volume

In a sample of eggs from captive birds at Slimbridge (United Kingdom), mean volume was 145.2 cm3 ± 0.83 SE (range 112.9–174.5, n = 217) (223).

Eggshell Thickness

Schönwetter (220) reported a value of 0.63 mm for eggshell thickness. In a sample of 10 eggs from Fuente de Piedra Lake (Spain), the eggshell thickness was 0.66 mm ± 0.007 SE, while cuticle thickness was 0.068 mm ± 0.008 SE (224).

Color and Surface Texture

Eggs are white, with a chalky coating of white, which becomes heavily soiled from lime during incubation (32, 211). In Lake Elmenteita (Kenya), eggs were described as pale bluish (33).

The cuticle of the eggshell largely consists of mineralized nanospheres, and the transition between the calcitic shell and the nanospheres is abrupt (225). The nanospheres are rich in sulfur and phosphorus as well as calcium (225). In 10 eggs from Fuente de Piedra Lake, mean nanosphere diameter was 785.86 nm ± 30.16 SE (224). The layer of nanospheres on the outer surface of the eggshell is considered a resistance barrier to prevent bacterial penetration (225, 224).

The eggshell has a strongly hydrophobic surface in response to highly wet incubation environments (226).

Clutch Size

One egg. Some nests may contain two eggs and rarely three eggs, however these are likely are the result of more than one female laying in the same nest during attempts of nest usurpation or of female-female pairs laying in the same nest (see Sexual Behavior: Brood Parasitism of Conspecifics).

Incubation

Incubation Period

Incubation has been reported as lasting 27–31 d (32), 27–36 d (4), or about 29 d (10) by different sources.

Parental Behavior

Incubation is shared by both sexes (33). One adult remains lying on the egg at all times and only occasionally rises to turn the egg and/or preen, while the other adult forages (10). The periods of continuous incubation in 13 focal nests from Fuente de Piedra Lake (Spain) were significantly longer in males (2.91 d ± 0.20 SE) than in females (2.37 d ± 0.18 SE) (185). There are no ceremonies associated with nest relief (33). Adults may shake the mud off their feet before an incubation shift (112). Unattended nests could be predated by gulls or displaced outside the nest bowl by other flamingos searching for a nesting site (197).

In the Camargue (France), at successful nests, one parent was incubating for 1–4 d while the other parent was feeding, but at unsuccessful nests, one parent was left with the egg for 9.5 d on average while the other was feeding (227). Observations on 19 focal nests showed that in 9 nests that were deserted, the males participated more in incubation than in 10 nests that were successful. In 18 out of 22 nests that were deserted, the females had deserted the nest (227).

Hatching

Shell Breaking and Emergence

Hatching occurs at least 24 h after the first crack is made in the shell (33), although in some cases, hatching may last up to 48 h (181).

Parental Assistance and Disposal of Eggshells

During hatching, the adult removes shell fragments with its beak and then places itself on the chick (195).

Young Birds

Condition at Hatching

Chicks are precocial and semi-nidifugous at hatching (4). Newly hatched chicks average 225 mm in total length (228). The bill is straight at hatchling, not curved as in the adult (14).

Growth and Development

At 2–3 d of age, the chick can stand and move out of the nest (33). At 25 d of age, the chick is half the size of the adult female. At 39 d, the bill is curved (14). Body mass and tarsus length continue to increase after juveniles attain flight (10). Chicks can swim at an age of ca. 10 d and start flapping wings at 60–70 d (112). Studer-Thiersch (212) reported for captive Greater Flamingo that 95–100% of the definitive wing length was attained when the chicks were able to fly, but at this stage the tarsi were shorter than in adults. Fledgling females (n = 10) reached 90% of their definitive tarsus length at the time of the first flight, but fledgling males only reached 80% of their definitive tarsus length (n = 13).

Parental Care

Brooding

The chick remains in the nest for 7–10 d where it is attended by the brooding adult, usually underwing (14, 229, 230). In 13 focal nests from Fuente de Piedra Lake (Spain), the periods of continuous brooding of small chicks were similar in males (1.61 d ± 0.12 SE) and females (1.58 days ± 0.12 SE) (185).

From 7–9 d of age, chicks begin to move around and show exploratory behavior in the colony. They are followed by their parents, who show increased aggressive behavior towards other adults and chicks. When chicks are integrated into crèches, parental aggressiveness decreases to its lowest levels, and brooding by parents ceases (230).

Feeding

Chicks are fed on a regurgitated liquid secretion, referred to as crop milk, from glands in the upper digestive tract (231). This secretion is rich in proteins and fat and contains an appreciable amount of glucose, as well as carotenoids and blood from adults (232, 231). Analyses of stable isotopes in feedings collected from the crops of chicks indicated that male parents’ secretions were more enriched in 15N than those of females, while no sex-related parental differences were found in 13C. 15N values in male secretions suggest that males feed on prey of higher trophic levels than those of females; the effects that this has on chicks have not been studied (233).

Parents secrete crop milk into the bill of the chick, with the tip of the parent’s bill contacting the tip of the chick’s mandible (234, 14, 10). Chicks store this food in their crops, which protrude outwards, after which the food takes a mean of 15 h ± 4 SD (n = 8) to be gradually digested in chicks over 7 weeks old (235). The feedings of chicks >30 d old represent on average 18% of chick body mass when the crop is full (235). Analyses of blood chemistry values of chicks from Fuente de Piedra between 1998–2001 indicated that there was interannual variation in the quality of food received, and that chicks experienced fasting periods, which had effects on their body condition (236).

In the Camargue, mean feeding bout duration was 11–14 min in chicks 14–95 d old (n = 37). The duration of these feeding bouts by males, but not those of females, increased with with chick age (237). In Fuente de Piedra Lake, however, both male and female parents increase the feeding bouts with chick age (MAR, MR-M, JAA, unpublished data). Average feeding times varied from 5.5 min for chicks 2 weeks old (n = 10) to 11 min for chicks >11 weeks old (n = 94) (MAR, MR-M, JAA, unpublished data). At this lake, some chicks pursued the adults after being fed (MAR, MR-M, JAA, unpublished data). The functional significance of these post-feeding chases is unknown.

During the chick provisioning period, the adult Greater Flamingo uses wetlands around its colony site. In the Camargue, most breeding birds are observed foraging 5–10 km around the breeding site, but a few have been recorded up to 70 km from the breeding site. Because the foraging areas are close to the breeding site, it has been suggested that adults breeding in the Camargue feed their chicks daily (10). However, patterns of movement and feeding are different for Greater Flamingo breeding at other sites, such as Fuente de Piedra Lake. Because the lake usually dries out in most years before the chicks are able to fly, adults must move to other wetlands for foraging, which are located 120–390 km from Fuente de Piedra (185, 150). Individual adults remain in the foraging wetlands for 4–9 d before returning to Fuente de Piedra to feed their chicks (150, 233). All such movements are nocturnal (185, 233). The adults usually remain in the lake for one day, though some of them may fly back to foraging areas the same night (185, 150).

At Fuente de Piedra Lake, the percentage of chicks that were not fed daily, as determined by empty crops in the early morning, varied between 25–40% during 1998–2009 (235). The chicks in Fuente de Piedra were fed more frequently in years when water levels in the foraging areas of adults were higher (156). On average, females stayed in the feeding areas for shorter periods (7.5 d) than males (9.2 d) between visits to the lake to feed the chicks. From the monitoring of the crop sizes of chicks recorded in this colony, it has been estimated that one third of chicks are fed during the night and another third in the evening (235).

Greater Flamingo chicks are not fed daily when they are in the crèches (185, 236, 10, 233). In Fuente de Piedra Lake (Spain), it has been estimated that chicks are fed on average every 4 d by one of their parents (MAR, MR-M, JAA, unpublished data). When the chicks are in crèches, they may eat eggshell remains on the breeding islands (37, MAR, MR-M, JAA, unpublished data).

Cooperative Breeding

See Fledgling Stage: Association with Parents or Other Young.

Brood Parasitism by Other Species

Information needed.

Fledgling Stage

Growth

In the Camargue (France), mean fledging date was at 80 d of age (range 71–98 d, n = 19) (10). Observations at other breeding sites show fledging dates within the range observed in the Camargue (33, 14, 238). Fledging occurred at an older age in a year with lower water levels in Fuente de Piedra Lake (Spain) (117).

Association with Parents or Other Young

In the Camargue (France), chicks leave the nest and aggregate in crèches when 13–19 d old (230). At Bredasdorp (South Africa), chicks were observed wandering in the colony from 10 d of age, and at 17 d of age aggregated in a crèche of 350 young with 20–30 adults (14). In Lake Elmenteita (Kenya), on 24 December, a crèche of 800 chicks about 30 d old was observed with 10 adults. On 1 September, a crèche of over 5,000 chicks 60–70 d old was recorded with 9 adults (33).

It has been suggested that adults attending crèches had lost their own chicks (195). At least in Fuente de Piedra Lake (Spain), this seems unlikely during dry years, as there is no food in the lake and the adults that remain during diurnal hours beside the crèche are likely related to chicks, since such adults feed chicks (156).

Ability to get Around, Feed, and Care for Self

Chicks fed independently in Bredasdorp (South Africa) when they were 85 d old (14). Fledglings are rarely fed by adults once they are capable of flight (212). A fledgling hatched in Fuente de Piedra Lake was observed being fed by an adult in the marshes of the Guadalquivir, about 130 km from the natal site (JAA, unpublished data).

Immature Stage

At Fuente de Piedra Lake (Spain), fledglings leave the site when they are 80–95 d old (203). In Bredasdorp, fledglings dispersed at 122–139 d old (14). The immature stage extends until the age at which individuals may potentially breed, at 3 y, but the first breeding attempt can be later (4; see Measures of Breeding Activity).

Body mass and tarsus length continue to increase after fledging and until the adult stage is reached (10). In juveniles found dead at the Camargue during a cold spell in January 1985, wing length of males and females had a mean value of 420.16 mm ± 16.02 SD (n = 62) and 401.20 mm ± 16.92 SD (n = 60), respectively, while tarsus length had a mean value of 265.39 mm ± 28.90 SD (n = 62) and 249.26 mm ± 22.70 SD (n = 61), respectively. In immatures also found dead at the Camargue during the same cold spell, wing length of males and females had a mean value of 423.55 mm ± 14.52 SD (n = 324) and 393.26 mm ± 12.28 SD (n = 250), respectively, while mean tarsus length of males and females was 325.97 mm ± 26.31 SD (n = 321) and 274.73 mm ± 19.51 SD (n = 250), respectively. Mean wing length of adult males and females was 433 mm and 400 mm, respectively, while mean tarsus length of adult males and females was 338 mm and 280 mm, respectively, during this same period (10).

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