Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Fun With Flamingos

I get a little taste of home when I walk through the Lincoln Park Zoo on my walking route because the zoo has flamingos.  Unlike Tennessee flamingos, these ones actually move and are not made of plastic.  I noticed them in October when the weather was nice, and I kept seeing the birds on my walks as the fall progressed.  I assumed they kept the birds out because the winter has been so mild thus far.  Well, yesterday I walked the zoo in 20 degree weather with sleety ice forming crusts all over every surface, and the flamingos were still out by their pond!  I realized there must be a few things I don't know about flamingos, so I did some research.

Tropical Paradise
 The Lincoln Park Zoo's flamingos are Chilean flamingos.  These birds survive high in the mountains of Chile where the temperatures can get down to -22 degrees F at night.  When the weather gets that cold, they stay near hot springs so they don't freeze solid, but these guys can handle some serious cold even without hot springs.

Flamingo with black flight feathers
 Flamingos' reddish coloration comes from carotinoid pigments in the food they eat, which is mainly red algae.  They filter the red algae out of wetland water, and they can feed in fresh to salty water, unusual for a land creature since salinity is so difficult to deal with.  Adults grow longer and stronger flying feathers that are black in color, and the displaying flamingo in the picture above is showing off his fine but clipped black flight feathers.
One of these is a flamingo.
 Flamingos are not born with a curved beak.  While it looks like they have run into a brick wall, flamingos' beaks actually turn down naturally as they begin to feed independently.  The downward curve allows them to filter algae out of the water.  Baby flamingos have a straight beak for sucking crop juice from their parents' throats.  Crop juice is a liquid that is nutritionally similar to mammal milk.  Both male and female adult flamingos make crop juice to feed their babies.  It is produced in an organ that is an offshoot of their digestive tract, and the parents hork it up to feed their little ones.  I don't know what sounds less appetizing - milk from glorified sweat glands like we have or regurgitated milk.  The best part about flamingo milk: it's RED!
Posing for the camera.
 Flamingos have red 'knees', but their 'knees' are actually ankles.  From those red bulges in the photo above down to the ground is all foot.  I should say, the bones below the red bulges are homologous to the foot bones in all other vertebrates with feet.  They have the same number and arrangement of bones in their feet as we do, but some of their bones are longer, shorter or fused or vestigial to make a flamingo foot.  Flamingos have true knees also, but they are too high to see and covered by feathers.  When flamingo legs bend, it appears they bend the wrong way, but when you take into account that the major joint in their legs is the ankle, they are bending the way any ankle bends.
Grooming seems to be a major activity.
 The flamingos at our zoo spend a large amount of time grooming themselves.  It's fascinating to watch because it reveals the musculature they must have to control their feathers.  The birds can raise some or all of their feathers with muscles that attach to the base of the feather under their skin.  They can willingly control these muscles so their feathers puff up or lay flat on demand.  Humans have similar muscles that connect to each hair, but they are not voluntary.  You can feel the muscles contract when the hair stands up on the back of your neck or when you get goose bumps.
More grooming with fluffed up feathers.

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