Science

Uh, What Is This Flamingo Doing?

No, really, what's going on here?


Video: naturewatch/Shutterstock

When the Audubon photo team recently came across this video of a flamingo on a stock photo site, everyone had the same reaction: What in the world is that bird doing?

We're no strangers to photos of ducks and other waterfowl turned upside down to dabble along river, lake, and ocean bottoms, but a flamingo? Yet that's exactly what this looks like. Fortunately, we happen to know a few bird experts, so for more information on this bird and behavior, we turned to Audubon Field Editor Kenn Kaufman.  

"Although I can't see much detail, I'm pretty sure this is a Greater Flamingo, and I've actually seen that species doing this—swimming along, tail up in the air like a dabbling Mallard," Kaufman says. "These flamingos feed by submerging their heads underwater, upside-down, and using their bills to filter tiny organisms from the mud at the bottom of the water. By swimming like this and up-ending, they can reach deeper than they could by wading. This approach isn't very common—usually they're feeding in shallower water, and just wading with their heads down—but it's one of their standard feeding behaviors." 

And what about those vigorously paddling legs? Why are they sticking out of the water so much? "In this video, the bird is just paddling with its feet to maintain this position with tail up and head and neck stretched down. If you look at a good illustration of the shape of a whole Greater Flamingo, it's easier to visualize what's going on: The length of what's underwater in this video (front half of body, neck, head, bill) is much longer than the lower half of the leg—so if the neck is fully outstretched, the bird's feet couldn't be anywhere near the bottom. And if the neck wasn't fully outstretched, there'd be no reason for the bird to have its whole body upended like this." 

Kaufman also points out that the Greater Flamingo's foraging behavior—swimming or stationary—helps explain its bill shape. "The flamingo's weird bill shape makes perfect sense if you think about its position while feeding, with that angled outer part almost flat against the mud below the water," he says.  

So there you—and we—have it. What is this flamingo doing? It's just dabblin' away. 

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