miércoles, 21 de marzo de 2012


Birds of a Feather

Flocking together may help these birds boost their odds of survival in a perilous world.

By Nancy Shute
Photograph by Klaus Nigge

A flamingo looks like a bird cooked up by an exuberant preschooler—absurdly long legs, knobby ankles (that look like knees), a snaky neck, and an outsize beak—and colored with the brightest crayon in the box. But the sum of its physical oddities enables the Caribbean flamingo to thrive in salt pans, mudflats, tidal lagoons, and mangrove swamps. With its hooked bill it scrapes up clumps of mud to make a nest. Stiff bristles inside its bill filter water containing small crustaceans, mollusks, insects and their larvae, as well as aquatic vegetation.
And the glorious feathers? They seem to exist purely for our delight, but in fact they are not pink at first. Chicks hatch with white feathers that turn gray—and later take their pink color from aqueous bacteria and beta-carotene obtained from their food.
Although flamingos have become a visual cliché immortalized in cheap plastic lawn ornaments, they remain strangely mysterious. “As recognizable as they are, we don’t know much about them,” says Chris Brown, curator of birds at the Dallas Zoo and Children’s Aquarium, who studies the flamingos on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. Scientists are uncertain about even simple behaviors, like the propensity to stand on one leg. (Some postulate that it has to do with the way the birds rest.) And because flamingos live in such remote areas and pick up and move as feeding grounds flood or dry out, researchers have a hard time counting and tracking them—or learning how they may be affected by drought, hurricanes, and fluctuating water levels due to climate change or coastal development.

What we do know is that flamingos in large flocks in the wild are gregarious and fiercely loyal. They perform group mating dances. Parents dote on chicks, gathering them into crèches for protection while both males and females fly off to search for food. And when danger looms, thousands move as one—a ballet that may increase the odds of survival in a perilous world.

Flamingos gather to perform a courtship display on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula.

Flamingos, fiercely loyal in wild flocks, move in unison when there is a threat. Here, near Sisal, Mexico, a research plane is passing overhead. Several major breeding groups live in estuaries around the Caribbean and beyond.

Pigments in brine shrimp, abundant in the Yucatán where these flamingos were photographed, lend the birds’ feathers their coral hue.

Prospective parents use their beaks to scrape together a nest mound for their egg. When it hatches, the proud pink parents feed their chick crop milk, an elixir rich in fat and protein that both parents produce in their digestive tracts and regurgitate.

When chicks are a few weeks old, parents leave them in a crèche and go in search of food, taking turns returning day and night to feed them. Though watched by a few adults, babies are vulnerable to predators such as dogs and jaguars.

Roused before dawn and herded into an enclosure to be banded, young flamingos huddle in Mexico’s Ría Lagartos Biosphere Reserve. Flocks may move hundreds of miles together in search of food.

A Caribbean flamingo runs to take off from the shallow backwaters of Ría Lagartos. The birds are adept aviators, whether flying alone or in flocks.

In the evening flamingos leave feeding grounds in large flocks to spend the night in shallow waters.

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