Flamingos, with their long, graceful legs, bright pink color, and strange down turned beaks, are a popular sight whether at zoos, in documentaries, or even in the wild. Watching them striding through the water, sweeping their beaks through it to feed, can easily mesmerize you. It certainly seems like any time we see flamingos, they’re on the ground or standing in the water, not in the air. This begs the question, can flamingos fly?
Can Flamingos fly?
Yes, flamingos are able to fly. In fact, unlike many other birds which spend most of their time on the ground, flamingos actually tend to fly at very high altitude and can fly for long distances. Flamingos can fly as far as 375 miles in one night, hitting an average speed of 35mph and flying as high as 15,000 feet above the ground.
Flamingos are a group of wading birds with many different species, spread throughout the Americas, the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, and even Europe. The name “flamingo” is derived from an old Portuguese word that means “flame colored,” in reference to their bright pink, often red coloration.
That famous color comes from their diet, which is rich in brine shrimp and algae. Flamingos in captivity are often white because their diet lacks the necessary pigments to color them pink. In fact, all of the color variation between the flamingo species can be attributed to differences in diet, with the species eating the largest amounts of blue-green algae having the darkest coloration.
Are Flamingos a flightless bird?
As we’ve already mentioned, flamingos are not flightless birds. In fact, they aren’t even very closely related to birds like turkeys, chickens, or peacocks that live primarily on the ground and are capable of limited flight. Flamingos belong to the family Phoenicopteridae, and they are the only bird in that family.
While they are wading birds, other wading birds are not close relatives either. Even birds like the roseate spoonbill, which outwardly looks much like a flamingo, is not related. In fact, the closest relative to the flamingo is the grebe, which looks nothing like them.
All this to say, flamingos are capable of long, sustained flight at high speeds even though they spend much of their life on the ground and in the water. Captive flamingos have to have their wings clipped to prevent escape, and in at least one case a flamingo in a zoo in Kansas escaped, flew to Louisiana and then to Texas, and still lives in the wild there.
Why don’t we see flying Flamingos more often?
Since we almost always observe them on the ground, you may be wondering why we rarely see flamingos in the air. The answer is that they tend to fly at high altitude- usually 10,000 feet up or higher, and their pink or red colors aren’t easily visible in the sky from that distance. Depending on where you live, there’s a good chance you’ve actually looked right at a flock of flying flamingos and were unable to spot them.
Why do Flamingos fly?
Flamingos aren’t a true migratory species, but they still fly frequently. They will relocate due to weather changes, water level changes, or changes to the food supply. These aren’t migrations in the traditional sense, but they do happen frequently. Flamingos don’t like especially cold weather and they prefer shallow water.
They’ll also fly if they’re disturbed and feel threatened, although typically in these cases they only fly a short distance away, just to the closest lake or lagoon.
How do Flamingos take off?
Flamingos don’t look like a creature that would be able to get off the ground and fly easily, with their long thin necks and legs, so how do they take flight? Flamingos have a distinctive take off pattern that helps them get off the ground.
They start by flapping their wings rapidly, and then taking quick, running steps or paddling in the water to build up speed and help them take off. Like an airplane, flamingos need a bit of a runway in order to take off and get airborne.
What do Flamingos do with their neck and legs in flight?
It really seems like their long necks and legs would make flight very awkward. Most birds draw their legs in close underneath their body, tucked into their feathers to minimized drag while in flight. Flamingo legs are too long for this. Likewise, bids with longer necks tend to hold their necks in an S-shape, keeping everything compact and close to their center of gravity, but flamingo necks are too long for this.
Instead, flamingos keep their necks and legs straight out, using them to counter-balance each other and keep their weight centered. Keeping them straight out also minimizes drag. This does make them less maneuverable in the air than other birds, but flamingos spend most of their life on the ground where their long legs are more useful.
Do flamingos roost in trees?
Flamingos roost on the ground, and they build their nests on the ground too. Their webbed feet aren’t well-suited to grasping tree branches, and they typically don’t live in heavily wooded areas anyway. They rest by standing on one leg, with the other leg drawn up underneath their body. While this looks uncomfortable to us, research has shown that flamingos can actually maintain this position without expending any energy, much like when we lie down in a bed.
Many ground-dwelling birds are capable of limited flight, flying up into trees to roost or flying for short distances to escape predators, but can’t fly for extended periods. Flamingos are different, even if at first glance they seem even better adapted to walking than birds like turkeys, chickens, or peacocks.
Flamingos are excellent fliers, able to cover long distances with relative ease and preferring to fly at very high altitudes. Since they spend so much time on the ground we tend to think of them as being similar to other ground-dwelling birds, but they’re in their own family with few closely related species. Flamingos are truly unique birds.