While there are many birds on the planet with striking and vibrant colors, the flamingo doesn’t start life as a pink bird. Oddly enough, their feather color changes over time, and here’s why.
Pink Flamingos Aren’t Always Pink
Aside from the occasional Halloween yard decoration, where the flamingo is painted to look like a skeleton, it might be weird to some to think of a flamingo of any other color than pink.
Flamingos are born without that pink pigment. Fluffy little flamingo chicks are whitish-gray downy covered. It isn’t until after they start a steady diet (first from their parents, and then for themselves) that they begin to develop that pink color we’re all so used to seeing.
The baby flamingos first diet consists of fluid from mom and dad’s digestive system. They can’t eat on their own until their bill gets the downward curve of the adult flamingo (they are born with a straight bill). Once they get that curve, the young flamingo starts its diet of blue-green algae and brine shrimp, which will begin to enhance that rosy-pink color you expect to see on a flamingos feathers.
It’s the canthaxanthin, a carotenoid like beta-carotene, that gives them their color. The babies start developing pink feathers from the diet they get from their parents. In zoos, there have been times when flamingos didn’t change colors because of their zoo diet. Once it was realized they needed the “dye” in certain natural foods to get that pigmentation, zoos started feeding the flamingos synthetic canthaxanthin along with their usual diet.
When you look at photos of flamingos (or those in the zoo), you can sometimes still see some hint of white in their feathers—they don’t all appear a solid pink. To get an idea of how their feathers turn pink from white, a fun experiment to do is to buy a white carnation and place it in a cup of water with some food coloring. As the flower absorbs the colored water, the pedals will begin to change colors—just like a flamingo eating shrimp!
Other Flamingo Facts
While the change in the pigment of a flamingo’s feathers is pretty impressive, there are some other fun facts about flamingos worth knowing.
- Adult flamingos weigh less than nine pounds (even if they look like they should weigh more—it’s those hollow bird bones).
- Flamingos are omnivores, so they can live without the foods that make them turn pink (which is why som zoos ran into problems in the past with a lack of pink flamingos).
- By about three weeks of age, young flamingos can start eating on their own. Before that, they rely on mom and dad (but at about five days old, they are booted from the next to hang out with other young flamingos, returning to their parents when it’s time to eat).
- Parents can identify their baby through its “voice.”
- Female flamingos lay only one egg, which takes about 30 days to hatch.
- That hooked beak the flamingo has is used to scoop up their food.
- The flamingo’s webbed feet make it so it can run on water, allowing it traction to lift off for flight.
- Yes, flamingos can fly, but they have specific flight preferences.
There’s a reason why you often see a flamingo standing on only one leg—it’s all about balance. Flamingos even sleep standing on one leg and don’t tip over (they seem to have better balance on one leg than on two).