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Why Are Flamingos Pink?

Ever wonder why flamingos are pink?

Flamingos are known for their huge gatherings, posturing on one leg and, perhaps most of all, for their lovely pink coloring.

But flamingos are not born with those lovely hues, and some of these birds are colored much more brightly than others. So what is it that causes flamingos to be so pretty in pink?

Why are flamingos pink(Photo: szeke)

Flamingos Are Born Without Color

Baby flamingoNone of the six species of flamingos are born with the bright colors for which they are so well-known. Instead, young flamingos are a typically a pale gray.

They would stay that color if it weren’t for what they eat.

It’s true! A flamingo’s pink feathers come from what they eat.

It’s All About the Food

A flamingo’s diet consists of small fish, shrimp and different types of algae.

It is the carotenoids found in the algae and the shrimp that make flamingos pink.

The highest concentration is found in the algae, but because the shrimp eat the algae the color-producing carotenoids are found in them as well.

Red AlgeaSome flamingos stick to munching on the shrimp and skip the algae. Those flamingos will still be pink, but will not be as brightly colored as birds that eat the algae. Think of the shrimp as a sort of middle-man for the carotenoids. The shrimp have to “take their cut” before passing on the carotenoids to the flamingos. Therefore, they ingest less of the substance and do not produce flumes that are as brightly colored.

Once the flamingo eats the algae and/or shrimp, their bodies begin to process the food.

The magic happens in the liver when enzymes present in that organ begin to break down the carotenoids into brightly colored pigments.

These pigments then give beautiful color to the flamingos.

Some Flamingos Aren’t Pink

If a flamingo, for whatever reason, did not eat a diet rich in carotenoids then those birds would not be pink. Instead, they would be white or else very, very pale pink. This does happen, both in the wild and with captive flamingos.

The sun can also cause the bright colors to fade. The colors are not constant and a bird’s coloring can change throughout the year.

Until recently, flamingos in zoos and other captive situations did not eat algae and shrimp. As a result, these captive birds lacked the brightly colored plumes of their free relatives. More and more zoos have started feeding their flamingos shrimp or a synthetic form of carotenoids in order to produce the coloring that is most desirable in these birds.

Flamingos without color

Flamingos Can Make Themselves Pinker!

Because the sun can fade a flamingo’s color, some types of flamingos will sort of “put on some makeup” in order to be more brightly colored. This is important because the bright coloring is a sign of good health in a flamingo, and that makes them more attractive during mating season.

A study by the Donana Biological Station in Spain found that this is done via a gland near the bird’s tail. This gland actually secretes the pigment that provides the coloring.

As the bird grooms, it applies the pigment to its feathers, adding an extra burst of color.

Could Humans Turn Pink?

Pink humanInterestingly, the same effect is possible in humans, but people don’t eat enough carotenoids to have an impact on skin color.

So that is why flamingos are pink. Now if someone could figure out why they like to stand around on one leg!

(Photo: diego)

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