Flamingos, Up Close and Personal
By NATALIE ANGIER
WASHINGTON — Stranded alone in Germany over a sullen white Christmas several years back, Nira Pereg, a video artist from Tel Aviv, decided to seek distraction at the Karlsruhe zoo.
She wandered into a glass-enclosed aviary and began watching the zoo’s flock of lesser flamingos, Phoenicopterus minor, with their foamy orangesicle plumage and their thick, bent bills the color of a bloodstain.
Ms. Pereg was fascinated, practically stapled in place. She’d never really watched flamingos before, and she quickly discovered that whatever vague impression she’d had of them since childhood hewed about as closely to the truth as a pink plastic lawn ornament.
The real birds are not peaceful, gentle or dainty. They’re not swan-necked stage props for a palm tree. If you want a relaxing vacation on the beach, your postcard to the flamingos back home should say, “Glad you’re not here!”
“They’re very communal, and they deal with each other all the time, fighting, picking on each other,” Ms. Pereg said. “They’re much ruder and noisier than you think, the opposite of the flamingo cliché.” All of which guaranteed, she said, “that I loved them even more.”
Ms. Pereg spent 10 days filming the flamingos at the Karlsruhe zoo from every possible angle. She got to know the birds, and they her. She wore the same clothes every day, and so did they. She studied their routines and became familiar with their moves.
Now they paraded forward, now they all marched aft. Now they shot up their necks like periscopes and twisted their heads first left, then right. They flashed the black petticoats of their underfeathers in single- and double-winged salutes. They moonwalked on water, raised a spindled leg balletically, from dégagé position to arabesque. They honked like indignant Canada geese and rasped like didgeridoos.
Ms. Pereg played games with the flamingos, and through trial and error devised gestures they would respond to in a predictable, even anticipatory manner. “It was really like a dance, or the writing of a poem,” she said. “We trained each other.”
Later, she edited days’ worth of film to a spare six minutes and added a startling soundtrack, of a gun periodically being cocked and fired; the resulting video, “67 Bows,” has just opened at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum.
Ms. Pereg’s piece is a work of art, not a documentary film, yet it is born aloft on the mad en masse majesty of flamingos, the dazzling speed with which they synchronize their watches and coordinate their fates.
In the wild, flocks thousands to tens of thousands of birds strong engage in group displays that are among the largest and most elaborate known, and now researchers are finally paying attention to the nature of that crowd consciousness, and to the private lives of the Necco-pink enigmas behind it.
For all their public popularity, flamingos turn out to be poorly understood scientifically, and only lately have researchers ventured answers to basic questions like why the birds spend so much time perched on one leg, and contort their heads backward before settling down for the night; how they keep their feathers so “Miami Vice” bright, and select a well-suited mate from the deafening throng.
“Flamingos can be difficult to study in the wild,” said Felicity Arengo, a flamingo expert with the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. “They live in remote locations and extreme environments, they move around a lot, and it’s hard to mark enough individuals to get a decent sample size.”
As a result, she added, “a lot of research is still in the natural history and exploration phase.” But the tedium of the field work is offset by the glory of the sight. “Every time I see them, I am absolutely amazed,” Dr. Arengo said. “They are the coolest-looking bird in the world.”
Maintaining their fiery hue is a difficult business, and it turns out that flamingos use cosmetic enhancements. Researchers have long known that they derive their baseline pink-orange color from carotenoid pigments in the crustaceans and algae on which they feed. Put flamingos on a carotenoid-free meal plan, and their feathers will stay white.
Yet as a team led by Juan Amat of the Doñana Biological Station in Seville, Spain, reported this year in the journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, baseline blush may not be enough for a flamingo in full courtship swagger.
Studying the greater flamingo, the researchers found that males and females alike brighten the underlying tint of their feathers through regular applications of what the scientists call makeup: driblets of carotenoid pigments secreted by the preening gland at the flamingo’s rear end. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I want to make sure I don’t own any lipstick shades called Flamingo.
Flamingos are an ancient group of birds, with distinctly flamingolike fossils dating back at least 50 million years. The group is not a diverse one, however, and today there are only five or six species, depending on who’s doing the counting and classifying.
Flamingos are found patchily throughout the world, wherever there are shallow salt pans, brackish waters or lagoons to exploit. Outfitted with specialized salt glands that allow them to excrete excess salt they ingest, “flamingos can take advantage of habitats that not many other animals can,” Dr. Arengo said.
The birds may seem to epitomize the tropics, but they also live in the Andes, 15,000 feet above sea level, where they rest on lakes that freeze around them overnight.
“You’ll see them sitting there like snowballs, frozen on ice,” Dr. Arengo said. “And as the temperature warms up, they thaw out, fluff themselves up and go about their business.”
A Chilean flamingo that escaped from a Utah aviary made a home for itself in the Great Salt Lake, where it lived as a local celebrity for some 15 years and was given the nickname Pink Floyd.
Wherever they alight, flamingos are filter feeders, the avian equivalent of baleen whales. They skate slowly through their chosen wetland, as stiff and pompous as Monty Python’s philosophers on a soccer field, treading through mud and water with their webbed feet, panning for brine shrimp, algae, insects, larvae, whatever the local microbios may be.
A flamingo submerges its head upside down, allowing its bent upper bill, with its curtain of comblike filaments, to serve as scoop and colander, all abetted by its formidable machine tool of a tongue.
“The tongue is like a piston,” said Matthew J. Anderson, an assistant professor of psychology at St. Joseph’s University who studies flamingos at the Philadelphia Zoo. “It moves back and forth rapidly, pumping water into the bill and then squirting it back out the sides.” And so the pumping and squirting continues, until the flamingo has managed to sieve together some nine ounces of food a day.
Given their large bodies and energy-intensive feeding style, flamingos do what they can to conserve energy. Dr. Anderson, his student Sarah Williams and their co-workers have published a series of papers arguing that flamingos stand on one leg for thermoregulatory reasons — to keep themselves warm.
“Just as we hug everything into the torso when we’re cold, so flamingos will hold a leg close to the body,” Dr. Anderson said. “They’re trying to diminish the surface area exposed to the elements.”
The researchers have shown that as temperatures drop, flamingo legs rise, and that flamingos standing in water strike the unipedal pose far more often than flamingos resting on warmer ground.
Resting flamingos also compress themselves by folding their necks and tucking their heads into their backsides, and here the Anderson team has found a psychosocial twist to the story. They have shown that when the birds do this, they display a degree of handedness, with most curving the neck to the right.
Intriguingly, those in the minority that lean to the left also get into more interflamingal spats than the right-leaning ones, perhaps because of brain-hemisphere differences. Dr. Anderson points out that just as with humans, the left hemisphere controls the right side of the flamingo’s body and vice versa. The left hemisphere is associated with positive social behaviors; if a right-curving bird is indeed a left-brainer, it may have a more amiable temperament over all.
Researchers are not sure why flamingos became such deeply gregarious birds to begin with. Strength in numbers? Patchily distributed habitats that encourage population concentration?
Whatever the reason, flamingos have taken social life to new heights. In breeding displays that are part Riverdance, part Caucus race with Dodo , male and female flamingos march, head-flag, fake preen and wing-wag as one.
The choreographed spectacle serves multiple aims. By comparing and contrasting, the birds can efficiently identify a suitable mate, and preliminary evidence suggests that they are drawn to mates whose moves most closely mirror theirs.
Moreover, by stepping together, the flamingos ensure that their reproductive cycles will likewise be synched. Each pair will lay a single egg and rear a single chick, and scientists have seen that survival rates among the young are highest when they’re surrounded by chicks like them, born the very same day.
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