Ten fun facts about Cuba’s Caribbean flamingos

One of the many photogenic birds to be found in Cuba is the Caribbean flamingo. They are the only type of flamingo to naturally inhabit the North American continent, hence they are sometimes referred to as "American flamingos" (Phoenicopterus ruber in Latin). As water birds they live in and around lagoons and lakes, and you can spot them from a mile away with their pinkish feathers and their tendency to group together in large colonies. They have a life expectancy of around 40 years, high for a bird, and as a species they are thriving, with their conservation status ranked by the IUCN as "least concern"". To celebrate this magnificent bird, here are ten fun facts:

  1. Cuba is home to the largest flamingo colonies in the western hemisphere

    Cuba is home to approximately 70 thousand Caribbean flamingos and 50 thousand chicks. The largest colonies can be found in the Rio Maximo Wildlife Reserve, where Cuban biologists are focused on the conservation and rehabilitation of the birds.

  2. Their bright pinkish colour comes from eating shrimps and algae

    The carotenoid content of crustaceans, especially shrimps, and various algae, lead to the visible pigmentation of flamingos. Caribbean flamingos are particularly bright, sometimes even a hue of red and orange, as they tend to ingest a higher amount of carotenoids than flamingos in other parts of the world.

    Incidentally, it is this pigmentation, and the way in which it patterns the bird, which is why they are called flamingos, which etymologically derives from the Latin "flamma"" meaning flame.

  3. Watching them take flight is not dissimilar to watching an aeroplane take off

    A flock of flamingos flying in Guanaroca, Cienfuegos

    That is to say, they need a run up before taking off into the air. Just like an aeroplane, they pick up speed and momentum first before taking off into the sky. Sometimes you can witness individual birds take off, at other times a whole flock of flamingos (or to use the particularly apt linguistic terminology, "a flamboyance of flamingos") take off together. They fly at a speed of between 31 and 37 miles per hour. They are generally not migratory birds, though will sometimes move their colonies if circumstances require, such as water level changes.

  4. They sleep and rest standing upright on one leg

    It is thought that this actually uses less energy than if they were stood on both legs. As one leg keeps them upright, the other leg is tucked under its wing where it nestles their head. Most flamingos prefer to rest their head to their right, and scientists have noted that those that rest their head to the left are more likely to be involved in violent clashes with other birds.

  5. Their relationships are...complicated

    A flock of flamingos standing by a lagoon in Cayo Santa Maria

    A whole book could be written about flamingo relationships (friends and lovers) and mating practices. To keep it brief, they are normally serially monogamous when producing offspring, in that they normally stick with one partner with whom they produce an egg, but at some point in the following few years switch to another partner. Scientists have observed the importance of dance moves in attracting a mate, and those with a larger variety of movements seemed to be viewed as more attractive. It is presumed that this is because good motor function shows they would have great agility to catch food and feed a chicks.

    Other studies have shown how friendship is an important part of their life until the very end, and they actively spend time with certain friends and ignore and avoid others. They don’t always hang out with their mating partner, so these friendships are clearly valued as part of their survival.

  6. The offspring are raised in a communal nursery

    Flamingos all tend to mate at a similar time so that they can then raise the chicks at the same time. Incidentally, they are far more likely to mate when it is raining. One reason for this is thought to be that water is an essential part of their existence, and if there is no rain then a potential fear of a forthcoming draught could make it impractical to have a chick. Whilst mutual support is given in the communal nursery when raising the chicks, the parents still recognise and give the focus of their support to their own offspring.

  7. They cannot bend their knees backwards

    If you observe the way that flamingos are bending their legs in different directions, it may look like they are performing an incredible feat of nature - it looks as if they are bending their knees backwards! However, it is actually their ankle that is pivoting. Their knee is located much higher up than the human eye perceives, and is usually obscured from view by their feathers.

  8. Their long legs are adapted to wade through shallow waters

    A flamingo searching for food in a shallow lagoon

    Scientists believe this is an evolutionary adaptation that, combined with their webbed feet hitting the water bed, helps to stir up potential food sources. When the water gets too deep, though, they simply float on the surface. Their long necks are also thought to be an adaptation allowing them to plunge deep into the water. They are filter feeders, taking up water in the beaks and filtering it for any food sources.

  9. They can hold their breathe for several minutes

    With their long necks plunging their head deep into the water, the ability to hold their breathe is important. Estimates vary, but it is not uncommon to see a flamingos head scanning underwater for longer than a minute.

  10. They have eyes larger than their brain

    A flamingo in Guanaroca lagoon

    This is self-explanatory. It is worth noting that their eyes are not big, so this really is a compact brain. One wonders whether such a small brain can have complex philosophical thoughts, like a human brain, or if it is much more focused on catching its next shrimp. Considering their propensity for friendships and forming complex social groups that are not directly linked to reproduction, it seems safe to assume that their brain’s size is not necessarily reflective of its capabilities.