What Exactly Are Flamingos Anyway?

Are they herons? Some type of ibis? And why are they pink?

This audio story is brought to you by BirdNote, a partner of The National Audubon Society. BirdNote episodes air daily on public radio stations nationwide.

Episode Transcript: ​

With fancy pink feathers, legs like stilts, and a beak shaped like a boomerang, few birds are as wildly distinctive as flamingos. We may picture them wading in tropical lagoons on the Caribbean, but the world’s six species are far flung, found across much of South America, Africa, southern Europe, and western India.  
The birds’ pink color is derived from the beta-carotene in the tiny crustaceans, algae, and plankton that are the flamingos’ main source of food.
Just looking at this wading bird with extra long legs and neck, you might think it’s related to other birds with those features. Herons, perhaps. Scientists once grouped flamingos with storks and ibises. But looks can be deceiving. A study of their DNA delivered a stunning surprise: Flamingos’ closest living relatives appear to be the smallish waterbirds known as grebes. An even bigger surprise: DNA indicates that flamingos and grebes share an ancestry not with other water birds, but with very different looking land birds, like doves!  

So flamingos evolved long legs and necks, just as herons and storks did. But they belong on a completely different branch of the tree of life. 

Hey, BirdNote’s going to Cuba, April 18-29, 2017! Learn more — and sign up — at BirdNote.org. I’m Mary McCann.

Written by Bob Sundstrom
Narrator: Mary McCan
Bird sounds provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. 104911 recorded by Linda R Macaulay. 
BirdNote’s theme music was composed and played by Nancy Rumbel and John Kessler.
Producer: John Kessler
Executive Producer: Sallie Bodie 
© 2016 Tune In to Nature.org   December 2016