Caribbean flamingos, also called American flamingos, are found in South Florida, the Caribbean, and the Galapagos islands. They have a very wide distribution in the Caribbean, sometimes breeding as far north as Florida, and as south as French Guiana and Suriname.
You can find Caribbean flamingos mainly in lagoons, lakes, and mudflats. These peculiar pink birds tend to live in colonies, since they are very social birds. This fact makes “flamingo-watching” an incredibly exciting activity, since the birds naturally flock together in large numbers.
Oftentimes, it’s possible to take a special tour in a small boat to their feeding or breeding grounds. While there, you might see them swimming and eating together. When a few birds take flight, the rest usually follow. Besides the fact that they are bright pink, that’s probably what makes Caribbean flamingo watching so popular!
Caribbean flamingo facts
The latin name of the Caribbean flamingo is Phoenicopterus ruber. Although most are pink, their plumage can sometimes be reddish or orange in color. However, their young are born gray or white. Their feathers turn pink as they mature. In addition, flamingos develop secondary flight feathers, which are black. In the wild, they have been known to live for up to 50 years.
Caribbean flamingos can grow to stand up to 4.6 feet tall and have a wingspan of nearly 5 ft. Their characteristic long, downward curving bill, long, thin legs, and bright pink color make them easy to spot. If you get close enough, you might hear them honking. They sound similar to geese. They usually honk softly while feeding, and loudly while courting.
What do Caribbean flamingos eat?
These majestic creatures mainly feed on algae and other vegetation, insects, and worms that are found in shallow waters. They also eat aquatic invertebrates like crustaceans and mollusks. To gather food, they wade into the water and move their bills back and forth to “filter” the material through them. Their tongues pump up and down quickly to push the water out of their beaks.
When do they breed?
If you travel to the Caribbean from April to May, you may be able to catch a flamingo colony courting. As a mating ritual, they turn their heads left and right rhythmically, while honking loudly and spreading their wings.
Once a pair of flamingos mates, the female lays just one white egg in the mud in shallow water. Many flamingos in a flock breed may breed at once, but each pair makes their nest about 5 feet away from other nests. Both the male and female take turns incubating the egg for 27 to 31 days. They also both help feed the chick once it hatches, with a substance called “crop milk” that the parents produce in their upper digestive systems. After 3 to 5 years, a chick will reach maturity and will be able to mate.
Fun facts about the Caribbean flamingo
- The word “flamingo” comes from the latin word for fire.
- It is the national bird of the Bahamas.
- Although they were endangered in the 1950s, the Caribbean flamingo population has grown to be about 880,000 individuals today.
- Flamingos have few predators, because their alkaline diet does not fit most predator’s needs, and because they often live in remote areas. However, urban development and human activity threaten their habitats.
- People once considered flamingo tongues to be a delicacy, resulting in a decline in population in the 1950s.
- Flamingos have been seen in groups by the thousands, and occasionally even in the millions.
- These birds often stand on one leg. They do this in order to retain body heat. Like humans, flamingos lose heat through their legs and feet. By keeping one leg closer to their bodies, they can prevent heat from escaping from that extremity. When temperatures are hotter, you might see them standing with two feet on the ground.
Why are flamingos pink?
Caribbean flamingos are pink because of the presence of carotenoid pigments in their diet. The algae and crustaceans they consume are filled with these chemicals. This results in not only pink plumage, but pink skin and even pink blood. The crop milk that they secrete to feed their young is also pink.
Interestingly, a parent gradually loses its pink coloring while feeding its young with crop milk. The bird will regain its pink hue again once it consumes enough carotenoids. A chick gradually becomes pink as it eats.
In addition, flamingo colonies have a hierarchy system based on their coloring. The pinkest birds have superior positions, because it is evident that they have been able to find the best or the most food.
The best places to see Caribbean flamingos
If you want to take a trip to the Caribbean, and see these fascinating rose-colored birds in the wild, your best bet is to go to one of the following places:
- Flamingo Sanctuary in Bonaire
- Celestun, Yucatan (Mexico). In this sleepy Mexican fishing village, you can see flamingos here all year round. Go from March to October if you want to catch the breeding season. It’s quite easy and inexpensive to book a morning or late afternoon tour– just head to the beach, where local fisherman await to take tourists to a nearby lagoon. There are several other great places to see flamingos in the Yucatan as well, including Rio Lagartos (another small fishing town), Laguna Rosada, and El Cuyo.
- Acklins in the Bahamas (Out Islands)
- Renaissance Island, Aruba. This is a private island owned by the Renaissance hotel chain. There are flamingos here year round, and visitors can see them up close and sometimes even swim near them. However, you must either stay at the Renaissance, or pay $99 to visit the island for a day.
- Flamingo Pond Overlook, Whitby, Turks and Caicos. Bring binoculars or rent them for a small fee to see flamingo colonies from this overlook.
- Rio Maximo Wildlife Reserve or Cayo Coco, Cuba
- Flamingo Sanctuary in Sint Willibrordus, Curacao
Main image source: istock photos