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Where Flamingos Flourish

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By Margaret G. ZackowitzPhotographs by Anup and Manoj Shah



Its candy color and stick legs might make it seem delicate, but Africa's lesser flamingo is one tough bird.



Read this compelling excerpt, or print the whole story.

Looking for mates, flamingos strut their stuff in a courtship display on Kenya's Lake Nakuru. Converging by the hundreds of thousands on East Africa's alkaline soda lakes, the three-foot-tall (one-meter-tall) birds are known as lesser flamingos, the smallest of five species. But they live here in greater numbers than flamingos anywhere else on Earth.

Flamingos always travel in groups. When faced with danger the birds get a running start, then take turns taking wing.
 
As many as four million lesser flamingos, Phoeniconaias minor, live on the soda lakes scattered the length of Africa's Great Rift Valley. Named for the bicarbonate of soda leached from the region's volcanic soil, the lakes' warm shallows encourage growth of spirulina algae—the birds' staple food.
 
For a flamingo, feeding requires a new perspective: upside down. To consume the spirulina algae that is its main source of nutrition, the bird inverts its head so that the bottom portion of the bill faces up. This big mandible also works as a float to keep the bill from sinking too far below the surface. As the flamingo swings its head from side to side, its large, thick tongue pumps lake water into the scoop-shaped bill, where a filter of hair-like projections extracts algae. Excess water is then sluiced out by the tongue. Large gatherings of flamingos require staggering amounts of spirulina. A flock of 100,000 eats 35 tons (30 metric tonnes) a day, and flocks of more than a million birds have been counted. But algae blooms are fickle in the Rift Valley lakes; even the most lush spirulina growth can die off almost overnight. When conditions change, noisy pink clouds scud toward the next lake. There's no predicting the schedule: Lesser flamingos don't migrate—they wander.


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In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Want to adopt a flamingo?
 
Not much is known about the movement of lesser flamingos. While it is understood that the birds move depending on feeding and breeding conditions, biologists have yet to unravel the intricacies of these movements or whether or not each bird has a "home" lake it returns to and where it spends most of its time. One program seeks to change that, and you can get involved. 
 
The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust of Great Britain, in collaboration with the University of Leicester and the Earthwatch Institute, has been using satellites to track lesser flamingos in East Africa since 2002. The flamingo project hopes to establish an international flyway management plan for these birds. For about $120 (U.S.) you can adopt a flamingo, receive an informative poster, and even track your flamingo from your computer or cell phone.
 
For more information and to catch up on the study, go to
www.wwt.org.uk/flamingo/.

—Michelle R. Harris
Did You Know?

Related Links
The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust
www.wwtlearn.org.uk/index0.html?factfile/in-the-pink.htm&2
A fact file on flamingos, additional references, and some photos by the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust—a group leading a study of lesser flamingos and their migration habits.

Wetlands International  
www.wetlands.org/networks/Flamingo/Flamingo.htm
Want to see what flamingo biologists are up to? Wetlands.org has this specialist group for scientists studying flamingo species. Site includes their informative newsletter.

Oakland Zoo 
www.oaklandzoo.org/atoz/azflamgo.html
If you want to wake up to the sound of flamingos, go to this site and listen to the birds. Overview also included.
 
Cuba Naturally
www.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0311/feature4/index.html
Discover Cuba's spectacular wildlife, including the largest congregation of flamingos in the Western Hemisphere.

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Bibliography
Allen, Robert Poerter. The Flamingos: Their Life History and Survival. National Audubon Society, Research Report #5, 1956.

Bischof, Barbie. "Scorch and Soda," Natural History (May 2000), 94.

Brown, Leslie. The Mystery of the Flamingos. East African Publishing House, 1973.

Gould, Stephen Jay. The Flamingo's Smile. Norton Publishers, 1987.

Kear, Janet, and Nicole Duplaix-Hall, eds. Flamingos. Poyser, 1975.

Tuite, Chris. "The distribution and density of lesser flamingos in East Africa in relation to food availability and productivity," Waterbirds (volume 23), 52-63.

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NGS Resources
"Flamingo Die-offs," National Geographic (November 2000), Geographica.

"Flamingo Facts," National Geographic World (August 1992), 14-15.

Estes, Richard D. "Flamingos of Ngorongoro," National Geographic (October 1973), 534-39.

Conway, William G. "In Quest of the Rarest Flamingo," National Geographic (July 1961), 90-105.

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