Pink Flamingos have been in the news recently in both Italy and the United States. In Italy, the migratory birds are returning in droves from Africa for the spring and summer months in favorable Italian habitats throughout the peninsula. In the United States, a flamingo that had escaped from a Kansas zoo in 2005 has been sighted as recently as March 2022 in Texas, a state that almost never sees this species of bird.
The English name “flamingo” comes from the Portuguese or Spanish word flamengo for “flame-colored.” The Latin name of the genus, Phoenicopterus, comes from the Greek for crimson- or red-feathered. Flamingos feed on brine shrimp and blue-green algae, as well as insects, mollusks and crustaceans; their coloring, which ranges from brilliant pink to pale pink, derives from the amount of beta-carotene in their food supply.
A distinctive characteristic of this wading bird is its stance on one leg with the other tucked beneath the body. The reason for this behavior is not entirely understood. One theory is that it enables the birds to conserve body heat; however, it is observed in birds standing in both cold and warm water and no water at all. Another theory claims that it reduces energy expenditure.
There are six species of flamingos—four in the Americas and two in Africa and Europe. The largest are up to 4.7 feet (1.4 meters) in height and can weigh up to 7.7 pounds (3.5 kg). The wingspan varies from 37 inches (94 cm) to 59 inches (150 cm). As flamingos are very capable flyers, those in captivity require annual wing clipping (a painless procedure similar to a haircut in humans) to prevent escape.
It was precisely this missed spa treatment that enabled Flamingo No. 492 and No. 347 (identification numbers on the leg bands) to escape from the Kansas zoo on that windy day in 2005. No. 347 flew north and was never seen again. No. 492, subsequently nicknamed Pink Floyd, headed south on Independence Day and found a compatible environment in Texas with its shallow, salty wetlands, suitable temperatures and ample food sources. Despite multiple sightings of No. 492 particularly in the spring, it is unclear whether Texas is a permanent home or part of a migratory pattern.
What is clear in Italy is that thousands of these majestic birds are migrating from Africa to favorable habitats from Puglia to the Po Delta, from Sicily to Sardinia. Flamingos are very social birds and form strong pair bonds; same-sex pairs have also been reported. They live in colonies that can number in the thousands. The colonies are believed to serve three purposes: avoiding predators, maximizing food intake, and using scarce nesting sites more efficiently. Here are the major colonies in Italy where they can be seen:
- In Puglia, overlooking the Adriatic, in the salt pans of the Margherita di Savoia Nature Reserve near Trinitapoli, considered the largest in Europe;
- In Calabria, in the Natural Oasis of the Pantano di Saline Joniche;
- In Sardinia, beginning with the ponds of Molentargius and Santa Gillia in Cagliari, also near Teodoro, near the famous La Cinta beach;
- In Emilia Romagna, in the Po Delta Park, also in the Comacchio Valleys and in the Saline di Cervia; and
- In Sicily, in the Saline di Priolo Gargallo Nature Reserve near Siracusa.
My friend and editor, Eleonora Vieri, who lives in Castiglione del Lago (Umbria), tells me that flamingos come to her Lake Trasimeno each year for a few days. If they stay longer, they turn gray because the shrimp in the lake are grayish. She says they are beautiful.
In the wild, flamingos can live up to 50 years. Pink Floyd, who is estimated to be 25 years old, has certainly earned his wings and his freedom.