Phoenicopterus chilensisChilean flamingo

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Geographic Range

Phoenicopterus chilensis, commonly known as the Chilean flamingo, is found in temperate South America from central Peru through the Andes and Uruguay to Tierra del Fuego. (Austin, 1961; Perrins and Harrison, 1979)

Habitat

Chilean flamingos inhabit muddy, shallow alkaline and brackish lakes. They live in warm and tropical environments, and range from sea level, along the coast, to high altitudes up to 4,500m in the Andes. Because the waters and surrounding soils in the areas they live are alkaline (ph up to 10.5), most of the local area is barren of vegetation and desert-like. (Austin, 1961; Campbell and Lack, 1985; Perrins and Harrison, 1979; Perrins and Middleton, 1985)

  • Range elevation
    0 to 4,500 m
    0.00 to ft

Physical Description

Adult Chilean flamingos, like all flamingos, have small heads, long necks in proportion to their bodies, bare faces, linear nostrils, pale yellow irises, long legs, and three webbed front toes, which help support them in mud. Their long necks are not the result of a multiplication of the vertebrae, since they have only 19 cervical vertebrae, but rather to the elongation of the vertebral column bones. The bill of Chilean flamingos consists of two main colors: the terminal half is black and the rest is white. The adults have bills specialized for filter feeding; the bills are bent in the middle, banana-shaped, with a small, lid-like upper mandible and a large, trough-like lower mandible. Lamellae, comb-like filtering structures, line both jaws, and the tongue is thick and fleshy. Like greater flamingos, the upper mandible of Chilean flamingos is “shallow keeled” and only partially covered with lamellae. (Austin, 1961; Flegg, 1986; Houston Zoo, 2006; National Geographic Society, 1983; Pearson, 1936; Perrins and Harrison, 1979; Perrins and Middleton, 1985; Sibley, 2000; Soothill and Soothill, 1982; The Great Plains Zoo & Delbridge Museum, 2005; Thomson, 1964; Wilson, 1829)

Like all adult flamingos, Chilean flamingos have pink plumage, but the plumage is mostly whitish with a faint pink tinge. In addition to the pink plumage, they have black primary and secondary wing feathers lined with bright crimson along the edge. At hatching, chicks have thick, light gray down, straight, pink bills, and swollen, pink legs, which turn black within a week. Older juveniles have gray plumage, with brown and pink markings, and black or gray legs and bills. Only after 2 to 3 years, do fledglings lose their gray feathers and gain the adult pink and crimson plumage. (Houston Zoo, 2006; Sibley, 2000; Soothill and Soothill, 1982)

Chilean flamingos have a wingspan of 127 to 153 cm, weigh between 2.5 and 3.5 kg, and are 79 to 145 cm tall. Flamingos molt once every breeding cycle and the only distinguishing feature between males and females is that males are slightly larger. Chilean flamingos in general are shorter than greater flamingos. All flamingos lack feathers on the lower part of the tibia (above the heel) and their legs are slightly bent. However, only Chilean flamingos have green-grayish to light blue colored legs with deep pink joints and toes. The legs are relatively shorter compared to those of other flamingos. Currently no information has been found about the metabolic rate of Chilean flamingos. (Cruickshank and Cruickshank, 1958; Houston Zoo, 2006; National Geographic Society, 1983; Perrins and Middleton, 1985; Thomson, 1964)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male larger
  • Range mass
    2500 to 3500 g
    88.11 to 123.35 oz
  • Range length
    79 to 145 cm
    31.10 to 57.09 in
  • Range wingspan
    127 to 153 cm
    50.00 to 60.24 in

Reproduction

All flamingos are monogamous and mating occurs in large groups, a minimum of 15 to 18 individuals is required for successful breeding. Mating among Chilean flamingos usually occurs in the water in the highlands of central and southern Peru, Chile (Tarpace to Magalanese), Bolivia, Paraguay, and Brazil. In Argentina they breed in the mountains. Their ritualized displays are often initiated by males, and their performances are more intense and protracted than are those of females. The relatively inconspicuous performances are similar to daily preening and stretching. The main difference is that, during mating, the preening is performed more stiffly. These displays are contagious among group members and are performed in typical sequences. For instance, a head-flagging is followed by wing-salute, which is when a bird spreads its wings to the side and folds them again. The general effect is a flash of black in a pink field. These displays may occur months before and after nesting. (Perrins and Harrison, 1979; Perrins and Middleton, 1985; Soothill and Soothill, 1982; The Great Plains Zoo & Delbridge Museum, 2005)

In addition, it was found in zoo populations that good feather color is important for mating. Chilean flamingos will not successfully mate if they do not have enough carotenoids, which contain vitamin A-based pigments, in their diet to make their feathers the right shade of pink. If their diet lacks carotenoids, their plumage becomes white or almost white in color. (Austin, 1961; BirdLife International and IUCN, 2006; Cruickshank and Cruickshank, 1958; Houston Zoo, 2006)

Chilean flamingos nest in large colonies, usually requiring between 15 and 18 birds for successful breeding. Similar to other flamingos, nesting is synchronized and is probably determined by the amount of food available for the laying female and the chicks. Both males and females build a cone-shaped nest mound out of mud and stone. Once the female lays the white egg, similar in size to a goose egg, both the male and the female incubate it for around 26 to 31 days. Clutch size is usually one egg; less than 1% of flamingos have a clutch size of two. After the chick hatches, it remains in the nest for the first couple of days, during which time it swallows the covering of its egg. The young are ptilopaeidic; they have thick down when they hatch. Because they are ptilopaedic, they are also classified as precocial birds even though they are reliant on their parents for feeding in the first several weeks after hatching. (Flegg, 1986; Perrins and Harrison, 1979; Perrins and Middleton, 1985; The Great Plains Zoo & Delbridge Museum, 2005; Wilson, 1829)

After 5 to 8 days, the young move into large crèches that consist of up to 30,000 birds. After 7 to 10 days the young start to show typical feeding movements in water and can run fast, but the parents still feed the chick, recognizing their offspring from other chicks in the crèche by individual calls. Parental feeding continues until fledging, which occurs 65 to 70 days after hatching. At this time, the chick’s bill becomes hooked like the adult’s, thereby making the chick capable of independent feeding. Around this time, the young flamingos also become capable of flying. Over a period of two to three years, the fledgling gradually replaces its gray plumage with faint pink plumage. At this time, the offspring is capable of breeding. However, Chilean flamingos usually do not mate until they are 6 years old. (Cruickshank and Cruickshank, 1958; Houston Zoo, 2006; Perrins and Harrison, 1979; Perrins and Middleton, 1985; Thomson, 1964; Wilson, 1829)

Breeding takes place year round, though Chilean flamingos usually build nest mounds in late spring. Some Chilean flamingos breed once yearly, though they can breed twice per year. However mating is erratic because it depends mainly upon rainfall and the amount of food available. As a result, in some years Chilean flamingos do not breed. For example, in Mar Chiquita, Argentina, researchers found that they bred only nine times during a 26 year period. (BirdLife International and IUCN, 2006; Houston Zoo, 2006; Perrins and Middleton, 1985; The Great Plains Zoo & Delbridge Museum, 2005)

  • Breeding interval
    Chilean flamingos can breed one to two times per year, depending on food availability.
  • Breeding season
    Chilean flamingo breeding can occur at any time of year, but usually takes place in late spring.
  • Range eggs per season
    1 to 2
  • Average eggs per season
    1
  • Range time to hatching
    28 to 32 days
  • Average time to hatching
    29 days
  • Range fledging age
    65 to 70 days
  • Average fledging age
    67 days
  • Range time to independence
    65 to 70 days
  • Average time to independence
    67 days
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    6 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    6 years

When Chilean flamingos find a mate, both of them build a nest mound made of mud and stone. The cone-shaped nest mound is generally 15 to 18 inches high so that the chick is protected from both flooding and excessive heat at ground level. The diameter at the base is 15 to 30 inches and the top, which is hollowed out for the egg, is about 12 inches in diameter. Nest mounds are spaced about two neck-lengths apart. Both sexes pick up soft mud and stones within reach and place them beneath their bodies to form a circular pile. The nest is built by using the bill to draw mud toward the feet. The egg is incubated and fiercely protected by both sexes. (Austin, 1961; Houston Zoo, 2006; Perrins and Harrison, 1979; Perrins and Middleton, 1985)

When the chick hatches, both sexes have a hormone called prolactin that causes the formation of “milk” in the crop gland. Milk is not produced until the crop is cleared of food. Crop milk is 8 to 9% protein, 15% fat, and has almost no carbohydrates. One percent of the milk consists of red blood cells. In addition, canthoaxanthin, a pigment that is responsible for the pink color in adult plumage, is present in the milk and gives the milk a bright red color. Canthaxanthin is stored in the liver and is not used in the down or the juvenile plumage. Over time, the canthoaxnthin concentration in crop milk decreases, and as a result, the color of the crop milk gradually becomes a pale straw color. (Perrins and Middleton, 1985)

After a young bird leaves its nest, it joins other young flamingos in the large crèches. The parents continue feeding their young until the young fledglings are able to fly and have a bent beak, which usually is 65 to 70 days after the egg has hatched. After this time, the young is able to obtain adequate food on its own. (Austin, 1961; Houston Zoo, 2006; Perrins and Harrison, 1979; Perrins and Middleton, 1985)

  • Parental Investment
  • precocial
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • post-independence association with parents

Lifespan/Longevity

It is not unusual to find 50-year-old Chilean flamingos in the wild. In captivity, most have an average life span around 40 years. The oldest flamingo in captivity lived to be around 44 years. Not much information has been found about the lifespan of wild and captive Chilean flamingos. (Houston Zoo, 2006; Houston Zoo, 2006; Perrins and Harrison, 1979)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: captivity
    44 (high) years
  • Average lifespan
    Status: wild
    50 years
  • Average lifespan
    Status: captivity
    40 years
  • Average lifespan
    Status: captivity
    36.7 years
    AnAge

Behavior

Chilean flamingos are gregarious, social birds that feed and nest together in flocks ranging from a few individuals to tens of thousands. They can fly and swim well. Migrating groups fly in skeins (V-formation), with their long necks and feet straight out. They communicate in flight with loud, goose-like calls, which are important in keeping the flock together. They stand on one leg to conserve body heat, drawing the other leg close to the body and tucking the head under a wing. They are diurnal and, like other flamingos, Chilean flamingos spend around 15 to 30% of their time preening. Preening is important for all birds to keep feathers waterproof and in flying order. In addition, flamingos face the wind when resting, to stop the wind and rain from penetrating their feathers. During the day, flamingos can be found on the borders of lakes and rivers and during the night, they can be found in long grass. (Austin, 1961; Freethy, 1982; Houston Zoo, 2006; Perrins and Harrison, 1979; The Great Plains Zoo & Delbridge Museum, 2005; Wilson, 1829)

Home Range

Currently no information has been found on the home range size for this species.

Communication and Perception

During flight, Chilean flamingos communicate with each other by loud honking, grunting, or howling that is similar to geese, but deeper. During feeding they communicate with low, conversational, goose-like gabbles. Potential mates communicate by performing exaggerated daily preening and stretching. Parents locate their young in the crèche by recognizing the individual calls of their offspring. Like other flamingos, Chilean flamingos have a good sense of hearing, but they have a poor sense of smell. No information was found on social hierarchies in Chilean flamingos. (Campbell and Lack, 1985; Perrins and Middleton, 1985; Sibley, 2000)

Food Habits

All flamingos eat by sweeping their heads side to side, close to the water’s surface to obtain their food. The slits on the top bill and the comb-like structures lining the bill, called lamellae, are used to filter organisms out from the water and mud. The bill is turned upside-down in the water. The water and algae are pumped in by a piston-like tongue, and then the tongue expels the water, capturing the algae and phytoplankton in the lamellae. This action occurs about three or four times a second. Chilean flamingos, like other flamingos, feed mainly on invertebrates that live in the bottom mud. These invertebrates include brine flies (Ephydra), shrimps (Artemia), and mollusks (Cerithium). However, their diet also contains some blue-green algae, diatoms, protozoans, aquatic plants, seeds, insect larvae, small worms, and any other organism found in alkaline water. Chilean flamingos feed in shallow water near the shoreline, or on mud banks, and sometimes obtain food by swimming or upending like ducks. Their tongue is very large and prevents them from swallowing large pieces of food. They can eat 10% of their weight in tiny particles each day. (Austin, 1961; Flegg, 1986; Houston Zoo, 2006; Perrins and Harrison, 1979; Perrins and Middleton, 1985; The Great Plains Zoo & Delbridge Museum, 2005)

  • Animal Foods
  • insects
  • mollusks
  • aquatic or marine worms
  • aquatic crustaceans
  • other marine invertebrates
  • zooplankton

Predation

Chilean flamingos live near alkaline waters, where few large organisms are found. They have found a niche in which they are not frequently exposed to predators. The main predators of Chilean flamingos are humans, who would kill the flamingos for their plumage, food, or for sport. Currently hunting is not as practiced enough to put the species on the endangered list but these flamingos are losing their habitat due to human activities. In poor areas, their tongues are considered food. (Austin, 1961; Houston Zoo, 2006; Perrins and Middleton, 1985)

Ecosystem Roles

Chilean flamingos are usually at the top of the food chain in the alkaline aquatic systems they inhabit. They eat invertebrates and some algae. They compete with fish for the same food. (Austin, 1961; The Great Plains Zoo & Delbridge Museum, 2005)

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Humans kill Chilean flamingos for plumage, food, and for sport. Some Andean miners consider the tongue of the Chilean flamingo to be a cure for tuberculosis. However, the main benefits that Chilean flamingos provide for humans are that they are a wondrous sight to see. Chilean flamingos also help regulate invertebrate populations in alkaline lakes. (Houston Zoo, 2006; Perrins and Middleton, 1985)

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There are no known adverse effects of P.chilensis on humans. (Austin, 1961; Perrins and Harrison, 1979; Perrins and Middleton, 1985)

Conservation Status

Wild Chilean flamingos are classified as vulnerable because of illegal egg-collecting, and loss of habitat as a result of human activity, such as mining, tourism, and hunting. (Houston Zoo, 2006)

Other Comments

One source states that the oldest known fossil of a primitive flamingo dates back to about 10 million years ago, while another more recent source stated that flamingos evolved from a group that existed 30 millions ago, before many other avian orders had evolved. It is generally agreed that flamingos branched off into their present form during the Tertiary period. Scaniornis, found in the upper Cretaceous of Sweden, is considered a primitive flamingo. As seen in the fossil record, flamingos were not always confined to isolated pockets in the tropics. They once were widespread in Europe, North America, and Australasia. (Freethy, 1982; Perrins and Middleton, 1985)

Chilean flamingos have been hard to classify. They are sometimes classified as a suborder of storks (Ciconiiformes), but their egg-white proteins are similar to herons (Ardeidae). Based on behavior and feather lice they are most similar to waterfowl (Aneriformes), but they also share a resemblance to waders (Charadriiformes) and ducks because of their webbed feet. Because of their similarity to geese, flamingos were once called Kaj-i-surkh, meaning “Red Geese” (Austin, 1961; Pearson, 1936; Perrins and Middleton, 1985; Wilson, 1829)

Chilean flamingos used to be classified as a subspecies of greater flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber), but based on their smaller size, lighter feather color, and behavioral differences, they were later classified as a separate species. In addition, some references place Chilean flamingos as a subspecies of Andean flamingos (Phoenicoparrus andinus). (Perrins and Harrison, 1979; Soothill and Soothill, 1982)

Contributors

Tanya Dewey (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Sonja Grinfeld (author), Kalamazoo College, Ann Fraser (editor, instructor), Kalamazoo College.

Glossary

Neotropical

living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

World Map

acoustic

uses sound to communicate

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

brackish water

areas with salty water, usually in coastal marshes and estuaries.

carnivore

an animal that mainly eats meat

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

coastal

the nearshore aquatic habitats near a coast, or shoreline.

colonial

used loosely to describe any group of organisms living together or in close proximity to each other - for example nesting shorebirds that live in large colonies. More specifically refers to a group of organisms in which members act as specialized subunits (a continuous, modular society) - as in clonal organisms.

diurnal
  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
drug

a substance used for the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease

ecotourism

humans benefit economically by promoting tourism that focuses on the appreciation of natural areas or animals. Ecotourism implies that there are existing programs that profit from the appreciation of natural areas or animals.

endothermic

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

estuarine

an area where a freshwater river meets the ocean and tidal influences result in fluctuations in salinity.

fertilization

union of egg and spermatozoan

filter-feeding

a method of feeding where small food particles are filtered from the surrounding water by various mechanisms. Used mainly by aquatic invertebrates, especially plankton, but also by baleen whales.

food

A substance that provides both nutrients and energy to a living thing.

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

migratory

makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds

molluscivore

eats mollusks, members of Phylum Mollusca

monogamous

Having one mate at a time.

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

mountains

This terrestrial biome includes summits of high mountains, either without vegetation or covered by low, tundra-like vegetation.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

oviparous

reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

phytoplankton

photosynthetic or plant constituent of plankton; mainly unicellular algae. (Compare to zooplankton.)

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

social

associates with others of its species; forms social groups.

tactile

uses touch to communicate

temperate

that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).

terrestrial

Living on the ground.

tropical

the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.

savanna

A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.

visual

uses sight to communicate

year-round breeding

breeding takes place throughout the year

young precocial

young are relatively well-developed when born

zooplankton

animal constituent of plankton; mainly small crustaceans and fish larvae. (Compare to phytoplankton.)

References

Austin, O. 1961. Birds of the World. New York: Golden Press, Inc.

BirdLife International, , IUCN. 2006. "Phoenicopterus chilensis In: IUCN Red List of Threatened Species" (On-line). Accessed October 15, 2006 at http://www.iucnredlist.org/search/details.php/40256/all.

Campbell, B., E. Lack. 1985. A Dictionary of Birds. Vermillion, South Dakota: Buteo Books.

Cruickshank, A., H. Cruickshank. 1958. 1001 Questions Answered About Birds. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company.

Flegg, J. 1986. Birdlife: Insights into the Daily Lives of Birds. London: Pelham Books Ltd.

Freethy, R. 1982. How Birds Work: A Guide to Bird Biology. Dorset, Great Britain: Blandford Books Ltd.

Houston Zoo, 2006. "Houston Zoo" (On-line). Accessed October 15, 2006 at http://www.houstonzoo.org/Animal/viewAnimalDetail.asp?scriptaction=showanimal&Animal_Preview_Flag=0&animal_ID=7.

National Geographic Society, 1983. Field Guide to the Birds of North America. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society.

Pearson, T. 1936. Birds of America. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc.

Perrins, C., A. Middleton. 1985. The Encyclopedia of Birds. New York: Equinox Ltd.

Perrins, C., C. Harrison. 1979. Birds: Their Life, Their Ways, Their World. New York: Reader's Digest Association, Inc.

Sibley, D. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

Soothill, E., R. Soothill. 1982. Wading Birds of the World. Dorset, Great Britain: Blandford Press.

The Great Plains Zoo & Delbridge Museum, 2005. "The Great Plains Zoo & Delbridge Museum" (On-line). Accessed October 15, 2006 at http://www.greatplainszoo.org/animals/chilean-flamingo.

Thomson, A. 1964. A New Dictionary of Birds. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.

Wilson, A. 1829. American Ornithology; or The Natural History of the Birds of the United States, Vol III. New York: Collins & Co. Accessed October 15, 2006 at http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1711.dl/DLDecArts.AmOrnWil03.