The flamingo is iconic, highly recognisable and charismatic with its bright cheerful plumage, crooked, spindly legs and that quintessential pose. These birds of light, with their fiery feathers, naturally occur on five of the seven continents and their name is derived from flame. I find this interesting – a bird that is often seen as comical is actually incredibly powerful and that is a theme we will come across again as we look into the flamingo in more depth. There is much more to them that the tropical, amusing symbol of fun.
A key distinguishing feature of these birds is their colour which is due to their diet. They eat organisms which contain carotenoids which in turn create the shades of pink that the flamingo is known for. Their babies aren’t pink, in fact they don’t get their bright colouring until they are between two and four years old. Whilst you might covet a beautiful flamingo feather, you will be disappointed, once shed, they quickly lose their colour. Not all that glitters is gold.
The flamboyant colour is used to attract mates and not just because it’s striking, but also because it’s a signal that the individual is able to locate great sources of food and is in good health. Perhaps your own body is trying to communicate with you about your health – when we are stressed or under the weather, there are signs of this that we can see; poor skin, hair loss, nails breaking…
In addition to the plumage, the pose of the flamingo is a key part of the iconic look. They stand on one leg because it’s easier than standing on two. Maintaining their one-legged stance has been proven to require very little muscular involvement whereas two legs means balancing which works their muscles harder. In fact, it is so easy, that even dead flamingos can stand on one leg! To us it might seem obvious that standing on two legs would be more efficient than one but perhaps this is a call to consider whether we are doing things in our life in the most energy saving ways. This puts me in mind of the tips and tricks that help those of us with pain and fatigue use to maximise what we can do, eg using a basket to carry things from room to room instead of making multiple trips.
Flamingos also use large flocks to live efficiently. There is safety in numbers and it means you can spend more time feeding and less time being alert to danger. The flocks also mean that they can create calm patches in the group, protected from the wind. To promote group cohesiveness, they will use ritualised movements. They also use ritualised displays to stimulate hormone production and hence to promote breeding amongst the flock.
They also use vocalisations and posturing to communicate within the group. When it comes to attracting a mate, flamingos make use of fancy footwork to find a partner. They take part in a group dance, moving and displaying as a unit. Typically the oldest or tallest males will start the process and then the rest of the flock – male and females – will join in. There are nine signature moves which are designed to show off what a great partner they will make. If a female is impressed by a male then they will mate for life. This seems like a lot of work but sometimes you need to make a song and a dance about finding a great flamingo to share your life with, or if humans are more your type, then think friends and partners.
It’s also worth celebrating because flamingos breeding isn’t all that easy… there is a narrow range of conditions which are conducive to breeding:
“If there is too little rain, there may not be enough mud to build nests or enough food resources to feed both adults and their chicks. If there is too much rain, nests can be flooded or washed away, and the diluted standing water supply may no longer be saline enough to support the flamingo’s preferred prey species. Additionally, flamingos are unwilling to breed unless their flocks obtain a critical mass.”
If they manage to produce offspring then the adults (both male and female) provide the chicks with a red substance that is high in fat and high in protein. This is similar to the milk produced by mammals and also occurs in pigeons and emperor penguins. They feed this way every 45-90 minutes for the first week and then it gets less regular as the chicks get older. In sharing this substance, the adults lose some of their pinkness.
So far, everything we’ve seen feeds into the narrative of the flamingo as being soft, gentle and delicate, however this is not the case. They can cope with incredibly tough, savage conditions. This includes high altitude wetlands where their legs freeze as the water they stand in turns to ice, only melting when the sun rises. They can live in very salty, caustic water that would damage human skin and are able to do this because their legs are covered in keratin scales. They can drink water that is almost boiling and is so hot that they have to hop from foot to foot.
Whilst earlier I said that maybe the flamingo was here to ask you to reflect on what your appearance is telling you about your inner world, it may also be here to remind you not to judge a book by it’s cover. Yes, the flamingo may look dainty and fragile, but it is extraordinarily tough too!
“Because so few animals can tolerate extremely salty environments or figure out how to collect the tiny particles of food available there, flamingos have been able to exploit this niche virtually uncontested.”
Despite being able to tolerate these intense conditions, they are incredibly sensitive to changes in temperature and precipitation so often find themselves having to move habitat. Somehow, possibly to do with barometric pressure, they are able to identify where to move onto with reasonable success. For example, in Africa, flamingos rely on lakes which are prone to drying out and in Namibia, greater flamingos have seemingly known when rain is due 500km away…
Turning to the symbolism of the flamingo, we find them often used to signify silliness, fun and as a nod to holidays and warm, tropical places. They have also been an icon of cheesy campness and were used by gay men in the 1960s to advertise their sexual orientation.
For the ancient Egyptians, the silhouette of the flamingo was used to represent the bird itself, the colour red and also the reincarnation of the sun god, Ra. In ancient Rome it was said that eating flamingos would help in all diseases as well as helping to maintain health.
“Old Islamic texts also indicate that Muslims used flamingos in a variety of medical contexts; sore joints, for instance, were sometimes treated by flamingo-fat ointment or by plasters containing, essentially, liquefied flamingos (obtained by boiling the birds whole for long periods of time), while ear troubles could be cured by the application of pastes made from flamingo tongues.”
But perhaps the most striking use of the flamingo was in association with the phoenix.
“Flamingos are regarded as the embodiment of the firebird Phoenix. This is reflected in its scientific name – the Phoenicopteridae, the Phoenix-winged… The motif of the Phoenix and its descendants embodies the dreams of the people. In the various cultures and religions, the Phoenix-like birds symbolize rebirth and resilience.”
– Lesser Flamingos: Descendants of Phoenix, Lothar Krienitz
Perhaps the flamingos’ tendency towards large flocks, moving location and ability to survive harsh, seemingly uninhabitable conditions added to their mystic and wonder, seeming to appear out of nowhere, en masse.
“Descriptions of the phoenix’s self-(re)generation call to mind the beliefs of some East African native peoples who used to think that flamingos emerged from the salt pans fully formed”
“Like the mythical phoenix for which phoenicopters may have been an inspiration, flamingos have been reincarnated, time and again, in the human consciousness: as a delicious indulgence, a mascot to rally behind, an embodiment of poor taste, and, now, an emblem of awareness of many groups in need – including, sadly, some of the pink birds themselves. Thanks to their unusual and unique physical attributes, flamingos have always caught our attention and have never failed to impress. Although they may look delicate and slight, these deceptively hearty birds manage to survive in some of the harshest habitats on earth, and have been doing so for millions of years.”
The flamingo puts me in mind of this quote, attributed to Winnie the Pooh:
“You are braver than you believe, smarter than you seem, and stronger than you think.”
Do not let the world underestimate you. You are tough, you are strong and you are a survivor.