Greater flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus)

Also known as: pink flamingo, rosy flamingo
Synonyms: Phoenicopterus ruber, Phoenicopterus ruber roseus
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderPhoenicopteriformes
FamilyPhoenicopteridae
GenusPhoenicopterus (1)
SizeLength: 120 - 145 cm (2)
Wingspan: 140 - 165 cm (2)
Weight2.1 - 4.1 kg (2)

Classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix II of CITES (3).

The greater flamingo is instantly recognisable by its long, thin neck and legs, colourful plumage and distinctive downward-bending beak (4). As well as being the largest of the flamingo species (2) (5), it is also the palest, with white to pale pink plumage, contrasting red shoulders, and black tips to the wings. The legs are pink, the eyes yellow, and the beak is pale pink, with a black tip (5) (6). The female is smaller than the male, and juveniles are grey-brown with some pink in the underparts, wings and tail, and the legs and beak are mainly brown (2). The call is a goose-like, honking ka-haunk (6).

The greater flamingo was previously considered conspecific with the brighter coloured Caribbean flamingo, Phoenicopterus ruber (2), but the two are now considered separate species (5) (7). The greater flamingo often mixes with flocks of the lesser flamingo, Phoeniconaias minor (6) (7), but can be distinguished by its larger size, paler plumage, lighter beak, and pink rather than dark red legs (5) (6).

The most widespread flamingo species (5), the greater flamingo occurs across Africa, southern Europe, the Middle East, and into southern and southwestern Asia (2) (5) (7). Northern populations migrate to warmer regions in winter, and the species often disperses widely, in response to water-level changes, food availability or intraspecific competition (2) (7) (8).

This species inhabits relatively shallow water bodies, including saline lagoons, salt pans, estuaries, and large saline or alkaline lakes. Breeding occurs on sandbanks, mudflats, open beaches, or sandy or rocky islands (2) (6) (7). Other than using freshwater inlets for bathing and drinking, the greater flamingo rarely inhabits areas of freshwater (7).

Its large size allows the greater flamingo to wade into deeper water than most other flamingos, and it sometimes also swims (4). This species typically feeds with the head and most of the neck underwater, while walking along steadily, often stirring up the bottom mud with the feet, to bring out prey (2) (6). The tongue is used to ‘pump’ water through the specialised beak, which has rows of comb-like plates that filter out food items (4) (6) (7), such as small crustaceans, molluscs, worms, insects, crabs, and perhaps small fish. Plant material is also taken, including grass seeds and shoots, decaying leaves, and algae, and the greater flamingo may even ingest mud in order to extract the organic matter it contains (2). The presence of certain carotenoid pigments in the algae and crustaceans are what give the flamingo its distinctive pink plumage (4) (9).

The greater flamingo is a highly social species, nesting in large, dense colonies, often numbering as many as 20,000 pairs, or exceptionally up to 200,000 pairs. The breeding season varies with location, and may occur at irregular intervals in some areas, following the rains (2) (7). Flamingos perform spectacular group courtship displays, involving synchronised wing-raising, ritualised preening, and ‘head-flagging’, raising the neck and beak and turning the head from side to side (4) (10).

The nest is a tall dome of hardened mud, with a shallow depression in the top, although a small pile of stones and debris, lined with grass, twigs and feathers, is used if mud is not available (2) (6) (7). The greater flamingo lays a single egg, which is incubated for 27 to 31 days (2). At a week or so, the chick leaves the nest and joins a crèche (4) (9). Amazingly, the adult flamingo is able to locate its chick from amongst the hundreds or thousands of others, by its call (9). The chick fledges after 65 to 90 days (2), but does not reach sexual maturity before 3 years old. Most of the birds will not breed for the first time until 5 to 10 years old (11). The greater flamingo may live for over 40 years in the wild (12).

Although a numerous species, and believed to be increasing in some areas (7), the greater flamingo is vulnerable to any changes or disturbance to its relatively limited number of breeding sites (9) (13). Breeding success is often reduced as a result of human disturbance or lowering water levels, which can increase the salinity of feeding sites and so affect food resources (7), or even cause thick soda deposits that can cake the legs of chicks (10). Climate change, and its potential effects on sea level and rainfall, may therefore have a serious impact on breeding sites in the future (9) (14) (15). Other threats to this species include pollution, disease, lead poisoning (from ingesting lead shot), and habitat loss due to harbour and industrial development or drainage of wetlands for agriculture (7) (9). In Egypt, large numbers of greater flamingos are shot or captured to be sold in markets (2), and egg collection remains a threat in some areas (7), such as in Algeria (16).

The greater flamingo is protected under a range of international legislation (3) (17) (18) (19) (20), and a variety of conservation initiatives are underway for the species. These include management of colonies in France and Spain, to increase suitable nesting sites (7), as well as a satellite tracking programme in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates (21), and the removal of sand polluted with lead shot at a salt lake in Cyprus (7). The greater flamingo breeds quite well in captivity (2) and breeding populations are currently maintained at various locations (13).

In 1978, the Flamingo Specialist Group (FSG) was established, with a range of research and conservation activities coordinated across various countries (5). The conservation of the greater flamingo is likely to depend on the effective protection of both its breeding and wintering sites, and it has been recommended that a conservation action plan be drawn up for this and other flamingo species, as a first step in better protecting these charismatic birds (13).

To find out more about the conservation of this and other flamingo species see:

For more general information on the greater flamingo, visit:

For more information on this and other bird species please see:

Authenticated (14/06/10) by Dr Arnaud Béchet, Researcher, Centre de recherche de la Tour du Valat.
http://www.tourduvalat.org/

  1. IUCN Red List (June, 2009)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1992) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 1: Ostrich to Ducks. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. CITES (June 2009)
    http://www.cites.org/
  4. Burnie, D. (2001) Animal. Dorling Kindersley, London.
  5. Flamingo Resource Centre (July, 2009)
    http://www.flamingoresources.org/
  6. Alden, P.C., Estes, R.D., Schlitter, D. and McBride, B. (1996) Collins Guide to African Wildlife. HarperCollins Publishers, London.
  7. BirdLife International (July, 2009)
    http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/species/index.html?action=SpcHTMDetails.asp&sid=3769&m=0
  8. Balkız, Ö., Béchet, A., Rouan, L., Choquet, R., Germain, C., Amat, J.A., Rendón-Martos, M., Baccetti, N., Nissardi, S., Özesmi, U. and Pradel, R. (2010) Experience-dependent natal philopatry of breeding greater flamingos. Journal of Animal Ecology, in press.
  9. Greater Flamingo Interactive Atlas (July, 2009)
    http://www.flamingoatlas.org/
  10. Burton, M. and Burton, R. (2002) International Wildlife Encyclopedia. Third Edition. Marshall Cavendish, New York.
  11. Balkız, Ö., Özesmi, U., Pradel, R., Germain, C., Sıkı, M., Amat, J.A., Rendon-Martos, M., Bacetti, N. and Béchet, A. (2007) Range of the greater flamingo Phoenicopterus roseus metapopulation in the Mediterranean: new insights from Turkey. Journal of Ornithology, 148(3): 347-355.
  12. Pradel, R., Johnson, A.R., Viallefont, A., Nager, R. and Cézilly, F. (1997) Local recruitment in the greater flamingo: a new approach using capture-mark-recapture data. Ecology, 78(5): 1431-1445.
  13. Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) (July, 2009)
    http://www.wwt.org.uk/text/444/flamingos.html
  14. Johnson, A.R. and Cézilly, F. (2007) The Greater Flamingo. T & AD Poyser, London.
  15. Béchet, A. and Johnson, A. R. (2008) Anthropogenic and environmental determinants of Greater Flamingo Phoenicopterus roseus breeding numbers and productivity in the Camargue (Rhone delta, southern France). Ibis, 150: 69-79.
  16. Béchet, A. (June, 2010) Pers. comm.
  17. Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (July, 2009)
    http://www.cms.int/
  18. Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (July, 2009)
    http://www.unep-aewa.org/
  19. Council of Europe: Bern Convention (July, 2009)
    http://conventions.coe.int/Treaty/EN/Treaties/Html/104.htm
  20. EC Birds Directive (July, 2009)
    http://www.jncc.gov.uk/page-1373
  21. Javed, S., Khan, S.B., Al Mansouri, R. and Al Hosani, E.A. (2006) Satellite tracking of greater flamingos Phoenicopterus roseus from the United Arab Emirates. Tribulus, 16(1): 16-17.