Lee Richardson Zoo

Chilean Flamingo

Order: Phoenicopteriformes - Flamingos
Family: Phoenicopteridae - Flamingos

Scientific Name:  Phoenicopterus chilensis


<Description:  Pale pink plumage overall, with vivid salmon and black wing primaries.  Bill stout and bent in middle, light colored next to head, black from bend to tip.  Neck and legs are long and slender.  Yellowish gray legs have contrasting red “knees” and feet.  (What appear to be knees bend backwards, and are actually the heel of the foot.)  Toes webbed.  Stand about 3 to 3.5 feet tall.  Males larger than females.  Fly with neck and legs outstretched.  Immature birds gray with brown or pink markings.  Get adult plumage at 3-4 years. Chick’s beak straight at hatching.


Range:  In South America, Central Peru south through Andes to tip of continent; east to southern Brazil, and Uruguay.


Habitat:  Coastal mudflats, estuaries, lagoons and salt lakes from sea level up to 14,765 feet.  Abundant on lakes without fish, but scarce on lakes with fish (compete for food).  Mostly lakes highly saline and/or dry periodically. 


Reproduction:  Flamingos need large flocks to be stimulated to breed.  In wild, breeding seldom occurs with less than 50 pairs.  In zoo’s, husbandry techniques have stimulated breeding with fewer animals.  Courtship begins as a group activity, and may go on for months before pairs split off to continue courtship.  This synchronizes breeding and improves breeding success.  It includes “Head-flagging, Wing salutes, Twist-preen, Wing-leg stretch, and Marching.”  Pair courtship is less elaborate than group displays.  Flamingos are thought to be monogamous, with a strong pair bond which can be maintained from year to year.  Chileans normally breed on islands of mud or gravel, but also on stony islands, and on the margins of large, sediment covered icebergs in Bolivia.   With other species, lack of water may prevent breeding for years at a time, but this species has been known to nest on dry land.  The mud flats emerge when the water level of huge, shallow salt lakes drops.  A pair builds a cone shaped nest of mud, hollowing out a depression in the top to hold the single egg.  The nest may be repaired and reused in subsequent years by other birds. 
A single chalky white egg is laid.  It will be replaced if destroyed by flooding or predators within the first few days after being laid.  Incubation is shared by the pair.  Either bird may sit on the egg for less than one hour to over 1 day.  Incubation lasts 27-31 days.  The chick stays in the nest 5-12 days, brooding between the wing and body of the adult.  It is fed a secretion called “crop milk” (made in the esophagus of both parents), and has a nutritional value close to mammal milk.  After leaving the nest, chicks join a creche (nursery) minded by an adult.  Parents recognize their chick by voice.  The chicks can feed themselves once they develop the bend in their bill, at about 4-6 weeks, but parent feeding may continue until 10-12 weeks of age.

Adult plumage is obtained at 3-4 years.  Successful breeding rarely occurs before 6 years of age, but attempts may begin at 3 years of age.


Diet in Wild:  Generalist.  Takes aquatic invertebrates including crustaceans, larvae and pupae, and snails.  The food of the Chilean flamingo is more mobile than that of other species, so they walk faster while they eat than other species.  They also have a curious relationship with the Wilson’s Phalarope, (a N American bird specie that migrates to Chile in the winter.) which swims around and between the flamingos legs as it walks to take advantage of the stirred up food.


Diet in Zoo:  Flamingo Fare brand prepared diet, mixed with water.


General Info:  Flamingos strain tiny plant and animal food particles through thin filaments called lamellae lining the edge and inner part of their beak.  The beak is usually opened only slightly to prevent large particles from getting into their mouth, and the bend in the beak ensures that the gap is equal over the length of the bill.  Chicks can’t eat on their own until their bill develops its bend.  The gap between the mandibles is filled by the tongue, which moves rapidly back and forth like a piston.  The action of the tongue alternately creates a vacuum and forces water from the beak through the lamellae.  As the water is sucked in, the lamellae lay flat, and then stand back up when the water is forced out.  The particles are caught on these filaments, and are then collected by tiny, backward pointing, hook-like projections on the tongue. 

Each species has a slightly different beak structure, allowing them to filter different sized food particles.  Thus, two species of flamingos can feed side by side and not compete for food.  Flamingos feed with their head upside down so that the beak functions more like a sieve.  The Chilean almost always places their bill at the sediment/water interface, often with entire neck submerged, advancing steadily and almost in a straight line.  Also tread or stomp in same spot to stir up food into the water. 

The flamingo is one of few animals that can convert the orange and yellow pigments (carotenoids) in their food to color their feathers.  Without carotenoids in their diet, they will fade from their normal color.  Since Chilean flamingos live at higher altitudes and consume more freshwater algae (which has fewer carotenoids than marine algae), their bodies have a reduced ability to metabolize the pigments, compared to most other species.  As such, they are a paler pink.  Even when sharing the same diet as the American flamingo, they remain paler. 

Flamingos are graceful and agile.  Take off normally requires a short run, with wings flapping, unless the wind is strong enough to lift them.  They fly with neck and legs outstretched, often in a V-formation.
Often the flamingo inhabits very salty lakes where other species cannot survive.  Their legs have developed a tough scale-like covering to protect from the corrosiveness of the water they stand in constantly.  This same quality water (often twice as salty as sea water) would quickly destroy human skin.  They can also withstand high levels of chlorides, sodium carbonate, sulfates and fluoride, heat, and additional conditions that other animals could not.  

Flocks from thousands to tens of thousands of birds are common, and flocks numbering in the millions also exist.  Their noisy voices help to keep flocks together, and vary with different activities.   There are six species of flamingos.


Predators:  Mainly human activity, lithium mining, water diversion, egg harvesting, agriculture, industrial projects, tourism-related disturbances and fish introduction into lakes. Other birds and some mammals eat the eggs and chicks.


Conservation Status:  Listed on IUCN Red List as Near Threatened and CITES appendix ll.  Populations are declining moderately rapidly due to egg-harvesting, disturbance and degradation of habitat.


BirdLife International (2011)


Handbook of Birds of the World, Vol. 1.   Ed. Josep del Hoyo, et. al.  Lynx Edicions. Barcelona, Spain.  pp. 508-525.