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Why Do Flamingos Become Less Pink as Parents?

Flamingos are renowned for their vibrant pink plumage, a hue they acquire from carotenoid-rich diets. However, as parents, these birds often fade in color. This is because they transfer these pigments to their offspring through their nutrient-rich milk. Intriguingly, this selfless act ensures the survival and health of their chicks. Wondering how this process affects flamingo colonies overall? Continue reading to uncover the impact.

Flamingos are among the world's most beautiful and unique-looking birds. Their bright pink, orange, and reddish colors, which come from the carotenoid pigments in the algae and small crustaceans they eat, are a stunning sight. But if you ever spot a flamingo looking unusually pale or washed out, there's a good chance they have recently become a parent.

Parenthood can be exhausting and draining for all animals, but for flamingos, the effort of raising a chick takes a visible toll. Flamingos lay just one egg each year. Baby flamingos are born with gray feathers and are around the size of a tennis ball. In their first few weeks of life, they are exclusively fed a reddish secretion known as "crop milk," rich in proteins and fats, which comes from their parents' upper digestive tract. Flamingos, along with pigeons, doves, and male emperor penguins, are among the only birds that feed their young this way. As the parents (both male and female) feed their baby the crop milk, they start to lose their own color, often turning pale or even white. This is because the regurgitated secretion, which comes from a muscular pouch in the throat called the "crop," contains so much carotenoid pigment that it drains the color from the adult flamingo.

Flamingo parents lose some of their pink color by giving their chicks regurgitated crop milk containing carotenoid pigments.
Flamingo parents lose some of their pink color by giving their chicks regurgitated crop milk containing carotenoid pigments.

At birth, the beak of a baby flamingo is small and straight. After a few months, it will grow into the distinctive curved bill flamingos are known for. A young flamingo's bill allows it to eat independently and eventually achieve beautiful pinkish plumage from its diet. And as the chick gains the ability to feed itself, its parents will eventually regain their own stunning colors.

More stunning facts about flamingos:

  • There are six flamingo species, including the greater flamingo, Chilean flamingo, Caribbean flamingo, lesser flamingo, Andean flamingo, and James’s flamingo. Flamingos are very social birds that live in groups of varying sizes, sometimes in the tens of thousands.

  • Flamingos use vocalizations such as nasal honking, low gabbling, and growling to communicate with one another and alert the group of impending danger.

  • A flamingo holds its bill upside down in the water while eating. It feeds by sucking mud and water through the front of its bill and pumping it out at the sides. Briny plates called lamellae serve as tiny filters to trap shrimp and other small creatures for the flamingo to eat.

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    • Flamingo parents lose some of their pink color by giving their chicks regurgitated crop milk containing carotenoid pigments.
      By: Anna Omelchenko
      Flamingo parents lose some of their pink color by giving their chicks regurgitated crop milk containing carotenoid pigments.