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

Movements and Migration

Movement

Greater Flamingo has a great dispersal capacity but is also highly philopatric. There is variation in the migratory status of different populations. Northern Asian breeding populations migrate south to winter along the southern shores of the Caspian Sea. The Middle Eastern and European populations are partially migratory, with some portion of these populations migrating south in autumn to northern Africa and the Arabian peninsula, returning in the spring. Breeding populations in the lakes of the Great Rift Valley are mainly year-round residents and make movements between lakes.

Dispersal and Site Fidelity

Natal Philopatry and Dispersal

Greater Flamingo has a great dispersal capacity, as shown by observations of banded birds in different regions. Banded birds from the Camargue (France) have been observed in the western Mediterranean and western Africa (10), birds banded in Türkiye have been found in wetlands in both the eastern and western Mediterranean (140), and banded birds from Lake Urmia (Iran) have been observed in the eastern Mediterranean, northeastern Africa, the Middle East, the Arabian Peninsula, Pakistan, India, and Sri Lanka (141).

It has been suggested that the western Mediterranean and southwest Asia may constitute two distinct populations, which overlap in Türkiye. In 2003 and 2004, individuals of western Mediterranean origin accounted for more than 1.2 and 1.9%, respectively, of the estimated breeding population of the Gediz Delta (Türkiye) (140). However, there is no population structure across the entire Mediterranean, including Türkiye (46, 47), suggesting that these groups may not actually represent distinct populations, instead representing one large metapopulation that at least occasionally exchange individuals. See Geographic Variation.

Despite its dispersal capacity, Greater Flamingo is highly philopatric. Most first-time breeding females (88.9%, n = 334) and males (80.4%, n = 434) hatched in the Camargue (France) between 1986–1992 were recruited into their natal colony. Flamingos that bred in the Camargue in 1989 and subsequently dispersed to Fuente de Piedra Lake (Spain) bred less frequently in years prior to dispersing (median 1, range 0–3, n = 15) than individuals that remained in the Camargue (median 2, range 0–7, n = 224) (142).

At Fuente de Piedra Lake, the time of settlement for breeding was age-related, with older individuals settling and establishing nest sites earlier (143). Younger individuals that were banded as chicks in Fuente de Piedra and observed prospecting for nest sites in Fuente de Piedra during the period of colony establishment did not breed at that site, but were recorded in the same year breeding in the Guadalquivir marshes, a site of lower quality for breeding. This indicates that colony establishment fits an ideal despotic distribution, where dominant individuals prevent others from accessing optimum sites (143).

Body condition, calculated as the residuals of a regression of body mass on tarsus length, affected dispersal patterns from the natal area. In a sample of chicks banded and sexed through DNA analysis in the Camargue (n = 1,575) between 1995–1999, dispersal probability from the natal area was higher in fledglings in better body condition than in those in poorer condition. Fledgling sex had no effect on movement probability, and body condition explained 90.9% of the variability in dispersal (144).

In another study carried out in the Camargue, however, there was low support for an association between post-fledging dispersal probability and body condition. Instead, there was a support for a negative association between post-fledging dispersal propensity and heterozygosity; the authors of this study suggested that individuals suffering inbreeding depression, and thus were more homozygous, were poorer competitors compared to other individuals, resulting in a higher likelihood of dispersal to avoid competition in a high quality but highly saturated breeding site like the Camargue. Although dispersal probability was associated with heterozygosity, once an individual dispersed, there was no effect of heterozygosity on dispersal distance (145).

Adult Fidelity to Breeding Site and Dispersal

Breeding dispersal is related to natal philopatry, experience (142), dominance (143), and preferential flyways (146, 147).

A study of breeding site dispersal was carried out between the two most important breeding colonies in the western Mediterranean: Camargue (France), a managed site with less variation in water levels, where Greater Flamingo have bred every year between 1974–1996, and Fuente de Piedra Lake (Spain), a natural site with more variation in water levels, where they only bred in 12 out of 22 years. After their first reproduction, a higher proportion of individuals moved from Fuente de Piedra to Camargue (8.14%, n = 1,057) than to Fuente de Piedra from Camargue (2.94%, n = 2,998). No age- or sex-related differences were observed between dispersing or philopatric individuals (142).

Long-term natal philopatry has been examined by studying dispersal of flamingos hatched in the Camargue and Fuente de Piedra, and settling as breeders in such colonies as well as in the Molentargius (Sardinia, Italy) colony. Fidelity was higher at the natal colony (>84%) than to the other colonies, and fidelity increased with experience, probably related to a despotic distribution. However, Greater Flamingos hatched at Fuente de Piedra Lake and which were experienced breeders at Molentargius dispersed only to Camargue and not to their natal colony. This behavior could be due to a preferential flyway related to dominant winds. Potential fitness advantages in terms of survival or breeding success of long-term natal philopatry were not detected (147).

Fidelity to Overwintering Home Range

Wintering areas that were used during an individual's first and second winters were continuously used until at least the seventh winter (146).

Migration Overview

There is variation in migratory propensity among populations. Mediterranean populations are partially migratory, with some individuals overwinter near their breeding colonies, such as those in the Camargue (France), while others migrate south in autumn to wintering areas in north Africa or to other sites in the Mediterranean (32). The Middle East populations spent the winter in the Arabian Peninsula. Greater Flamingo that breed in Kazakhstan migrate to the southern shores of the Caspian Sea. In eastern Africa, breeding populations are mainly sedentary or semi-nomadic, moving among the Great Rift Valley lakes. Movement from Lake Urmia to the Middle East, Arabian Peninsula, Pakistan, India, and Sri Lanka (141) may be better described as migration and not dispersal, since at least some of these locations do not have breeding populations.

Survival trade-offs between different movement strategies were examined in individuals banded as chicks in the Camargue between 1977–2010 that were later observed during the nonbreeding season in France, Italy, the Iberian Peninsula, and northern and western Africa. Flamingos hatched in the Camargue showed a mean probability of spending their first winter in France, the Iberian Peninsula, Italy, or northwestern Africa of 18%, 29%, 18%, and 34%, respectively. Birds that were 1–2 years old from the Camargue that either remained at the breeding site or moved only medium distances (France, Italy, or Iberian Peninsula) survived better than those wintering in more distant sites. Conversely, three-year-old birds that wintered at more distant locations (northern and northwestern Africa) survived better (n = 22,671) (148).

In the western Mediterranean, the increase of precipitation in years corresponding to a low North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) index affected the probability of migration. Migration probabilities were higher (0.88) in years of low winter NAO and lower (0.76) in years of higher winter NAO values (148).

Timing and Routes of Migration

Post-breeding

In Morocco, autumn passage to the south along the Atlantic coast lasts from late July or August to early November (149). In Israel, autumn migration was observed from mid-July to the end November (95). In Cyprus, the first migrants arrived in October and remained until March (89).

Three satellite-tracked adults from Fuente de Piedra Lake moved to Algeria or Tunisia after breeding and were recorded at Fuente de Piedra the following spring. These birds crossed the Mediterranean Sea from Almería or Alicante provinces to Algeria. Another tracked adult crossed to Morocco from the Guadalquivir marshes after breeding, and was recorded at the Banc d’Arguin (Mauritania) from 19 October to 4 December (150).

Pre-breeding

In Morocco, spring passage to the north along the Atlantic coast lasts from mid-February to early June (149). In Israel, spring migration occurs from mid-March to mid-June (95).

A Greater Flamingo, captured at Al Wathba Wetland Reserve (Abu Dhabi) and fitted with a satellite tracker in November 2005, started its return migration from the Al Aryam coast, west of Abu Dhabi, on 27 February 2006. It was recorded at Nariz Lake (Iran) on 4 March, in southwestern Turkmenistan on 7 May, and close to the southeastern shore of the Caspian Sea in early June; on 25 June, it was further north along the east coast of the Caspian Sea (125).

Routes

The nesting population in Lake Chelkar-Tengiz (Kazakhstan) is migratory, moving to the shores of the southern Caspian Sea in Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and northern Iran during the non-breeding season (32). Nesting populations in Afghanistan are also probably migratory, likely moving to Pakistan and Iran in winter (10).

The movements of the nesting population in the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans (Botswana) are poorly known. When the wetland dried up, of three satellite-tracked birds, one moved to the Namibian coast, another moved to northern South Africa, and a third moved to southern Mozambique (123). Large flocks of flamingos, possibly from Botswana, have also been recorded at Beira (Mozambique) during July, August, and September (151). In Etosha Pan (Namibia), large numbers arrived in February to breed. The wetland dried up in July, and the flamingos left the area heading towards the Atlantic coast (65). It is not known whether all went there, or if some moved from Etosha Pan to the Rift Lake region (10). In eastern Africa, inter-lake movements are recorded along the Great Rift Valley (67). Three individuals (an adult male, adult female, and immature female) that were radio-tracked for 721–814 d moved between lakes in Kenya and Tanzania. Two of them traveled to Rasini Bay (Kenya) along the Indian Ocean coast and then returned to the lake region (124).

Greater Flamingo occurs in the wetlands of western Madagascar throughout the year, but there is no reproduction there (152). There are likely movements from nearby areas in eastern Africa, as it occurs with flocks of Lesser Flamingo (Phoeniconaias minor) (123).

There are several migratory routes between Europe, north Africa, the Middle East, and the Arabian Peninsula. In the west, the movements are through the Iberian Peninsula towards northwest Africa (Morocco to Tunisia) (149, 106, 94), as well as towards Mauritania and Senegal along the Atlantic African coast (150, 69, 71). There is another migratory route through the center of the Mediterranean through the Italian peninsula and Sicily to Tunisia (72). In the eastern Mediterranean, there is migratory movement from Türkiye to Cyprus, as well as from these countries to northeast Africa, the Middle East, and the Arabian Peninsula (95, 89, 84).

Extrinsic factors may explain movement behavior. Wind direction at the time of fledglings’ movement from Camargue to wintering areas in Tunisia and Spain determines which flyway could be used. Thus, Camargue-hatched flamingos mainly moved to Tunisia with prevailing winds in the direction of Tunisia, probably because tail-assisted winds were important for crossing 800 km over the Mediterranean Sea (146). However, wind direction was not as important when Camargue flamingos moved toward Spain, because there are several stopover sites along the Mediterranean Spanish coast (146).

Greater Flamingo that presumably escaped from captivity appeared between 1978–1988 and showed an annual migratory pattern between spring nesting at Zwillbrocker Venn (Germany), stopover in autumn at Lake IJssel (Netherlands), and departing in November to wintering areas in the joint delta of the rivers Rhine, Meuse, and Scheldt (The Netherlands) in November (100).

Migratory Behavior

Flock size departing from Camargue on post-nuptial, trans-Mediterranean flights varied from <20 to >300 individuals, but most flocks varied from 20–60 birds (10). Most flocks are composed of just adults or adults and juveniles (10).

The range of altitudes at which birds fly during migration varies widely, with birds typically flying low when over the sea and high when over land. Low altitude flight typically ranges from over 50 m down to just above the sea surface (10). During high altitude flight, however, birds have been detected flying 2,000–6,000 m above the ground; a Greater Flamingo detected by radar flying over Málaga (Spain) was at altitudes of 4,210–4,786 m (117), while in Israel, altitudes of 2,000–6,000 m above sea level were tracked by radar (95).

Migration takes place both during the day and night (95). A tracked adult was recorded resting at sea for a few hours while crossing the Mediterranean Sea between Almería Province (Spain) and Algeria (150).

In one study, for distances less than 200 km or greater than 800 km, Greater Flamingos flew at 60–70 km/h, whereas when they moved intermediate distances birds would reach 50–60 km/h; the maximum speed recorded was 90 km/h. Flamingos can also fly for long periods of time, with one bird flying for 15 h straight without stopping (150). The longest non-stop flights recorded in one study taken by one individual were 959 km and 1,139 km; these two non-stop flights were interrupted with a brief stopover of 8–9 h between them, as it moved from southwestern Spain to northwestern Mauritania (150).

Control and Physiology of Migration

It has been suggested that flamingos align in rows or in V-formation to minimize the energy costs of flying (153).

Béchet (153) estimated that during flight the mechanical power required by females (25.3 W) is lower than that of males (43.5 W). Transforming these values to metabolic power, they represent 17.4 times the basal metabolic rate (BMR) in females, and 22.9 times the BMR in males. This difference is due to size dimorphism (153).

Likely as an adaptation to flapping flight, the mineral density in bones of Greater Flamingo is lower than in other birds that use less costly flying strategies, such as soaring (154).

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