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Surely one of the world's most unmistakable birds, on account of its looks and strange method of feeding with its head upside down, the flamingo (Family: Pheonicopteridae) has much to endear it to humans. The flamingo made a significant contribution to Western mythology in the Alice in Wonderland stories by English writer Lewis Carroll. In the court of the Red Queen, ingeniuously but somewhat cruelly, the birds are used as croquet mallets, a treatment which invokes much sympathy.

Related to storks, herons and ibises (Family Ciconiiformes), the flamingo gets its name from the Portuguese flamenco, meaning 'flaming'. This refers to their bright pink to scarlet plumage. Bright pigments in these colors are not produced by the bird itself but are from small shrimps in the flamingo's diet.

Although an inspiring and fascinating bird little is known of its habits, considering they are so popular. They are beautiful, graceful birds an impression enhanced by their very long legs and neck. They have webbed feet and their bill is bent downwards at the center. These adaptations allow the bird to can assume the usual feeding position, with its heads underwater. The neck and legs comprise much of the height which can reach over five feet (1.5 m).

The bill of the flamingo is ingeniously constructed to sift algae and small crustaceans from the productive waters. The lower manible is a long keeled box while the upper mandible makes a thin, close-fitting lid. A bend in the bill, just in front of the nostrils, allows it to be used as a scoop. Rows of stiff, fine bristles form a net inside the bill. As the flamingo moves its bill, the tongue pumps water through the network. This sifts out the fine nutritious particles of food from the mud.

The curious, seemingly oversized bill is the key to the flamingos success. Its structure is highly specialized for their particular mode of feeding. It enables the flamingo to get food that is inaccessible to most other animals of its size. The flamingo therefore has a monopoly on their food source and where it is abundant, they will assemble in huge numbers.

These vast flocks appear as a shimmering band of pink, all along the lake shore. In the evening, the whole flock will suddenly take off and circle upwards to a certain height and then head off to another part of the lake or some other lake. In flight their extended neck and legs both sag slightly, but airborne and on the ground they are amazingly graceful stately birds.

The sight of these masses of flamingos is one of the most memorable experiences of a lifetime. Flamingos occur in such numbers at Lake Nakuru in Kenya that the sight has been called "the greatest bird spectacle on Earth" by Roger Tory Peterson, an American bird expert. When he was there in 1957, over two million teeming flamingos crowded the lake's shores.

Despite their huge numbers, the breeding cycle of flamingos seems haphazard and unplanned. Several years may pass with no young produced at all. When they do breed, any time of year will do. Thousands of individuals gather in pairs. Both sexes help construct the nest. They pile mud into knee-high mounds with a central depression on the top in which eggs are laid. The nests are strong as they bake hard in the hot sun.

Two chalky white eggs are laid and hatchlings emerge after a month. Hundreds of flamingo chicks are herded together in large creches while a few adults watch over them. This lets a chick's parents feed without the need to worry about their chick. When full, they return to take turn as baby-sitter of the creche. They find their own chick by it's call, which they can distinguish among the cacophony.

Fresh water supports too low abundances of algae and crustaceans to be exploited by the flamingo which are therefore limited to Rift Valley soda lakes. In East Africa, there are two species of flamingo. The differences in bill shape allow them to take food different enough that the two species avoid excessive competition to allow them to coexist.

The Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber) is the larger, typically five feet (1.5 m) high and four feet (1.2 m) from head to tail. They are whitish pink with bright red on the wings and black flight feathers. It has a pink and black bill, which has a shallow keel. Their food is mostly small invertebrates. In Kenya, Lakes Elmentaita and Magadi are favored breeding sites.

Here it often associates with the other species, the Lesser Flamingo (Phoeniconaias minor). This bird stands only three to four feet (0.9-1.2 m) high and has much pinker plumage. Its bill is dark carmine, tipped black and has a deep keel. They feed only on algae. This species occurs through much of East Africa but is commonest on the so-called soda lakes—Lakes Borogoria, Elmentaita and Magadi. Hannington, Nakuru, Elmentaita, Magadi, Natron, Manyara.


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