Ethiopia's Funky Flamingos

09/12/16 01:39:pm


Ethiopia is one of the top 10 countries in Africa for birding. I will write more on this rich subject in future but today I want to focus on a bird that ranks as a personal favourite for many of us – the flamingo.

I first saw flamingos about 48 years ago, when I was about 6 and my family was on a camping holiday on the shores of Lake Shalla. This one of the alkaline lakes in the Rift Valley south of Addis Ababa the capital of Ethiopia. I remember seeing my dad in his ginger camping beard which I’ve never seen since. There must have been something about the wild otherness of the area that had him abandon a life-long attachment to his razor for a couple of carefree weeks. I had never seen such a large body of water before and I can still see the huge pink formations of airborne flamingos.

Ethiopia is a place that birders flock to (sorry, couldn’t resist) from all over the world. Up to 924 bird species have been identified in Ethiopia and 23 of them are endemic and found nowhere else. The flamingo is not an endemic but can be found in Ethiopia in large numbers especially in the cluster of three Rift Valley Lakes with alkaline waters known as lakes Abiata, Shalla and Chitu.

The name flamingo comes from the Portuguese or Spanish word ‘flamengo’ which means flame coloured.

Flamingos (or Flamingoes) are a large wading bird with long slender legs and neck and a huge angular beak. They are considered, oddly enough, to be related to Grebes. Superficially, this is rather surprising as Grebes have short necks and legs but biologists say the two species have 11 traits in common that are not found in other birds.

There are 6 species of flamingo. Four of these are in South America including the Caribbean and Galapagos Islands. Of the other two, the Greater Flamingo is the most widely distributed species and is found from southern Europe through some parts of Africa, the middle east and in South Asia.

The unfortunately named Lesser Flamingo is the most numerous flamingo species of the six with a global population of about 2 million. It is found in north west India and in the alkaline and saline lakes found along the length of the Great Rift Valley of East Africa. Lakes Abiata, Shalla and Chitu in Ethiopia are such lakes.

Despite their name, these Lesser Flamingos grow to almost a metre in height and adults will weigh up 2.7 kgs. They are the smallest flamingo and perhaps this is the reason for their name. It’s strange how and why we name things. From 1985 to 2006 the average height for NBA basketball players was about 2 meters. As a man of only 1.74 metres height I can’t help wondering if a basketball player of only 1.90 meters would enjoy being called a lesser basketball player.

Flamingos beaks are unique in that they have evolved to work upside down. The large, coarse textured tongue and fine hair like filaments on the edges of the beaks separate food from the mud and silt a flamingo dredges up from the lake bed sediments. The pink or red colouring results from carotenoids found in their diet. These are digested into compounds that colour the Flamingos. The deepest hues of pink and red belong to flamingos whose diet is primarily the blue-green algae found in the alkaline lakes. Lighter shades indicate the flamingos are mainly digesting creatures that have themselves been eating the blue-green algae.

Flamingos are near the top of the food chain. This no doubt contributes to their longevity. Among their few natural predators are bacteria, toxins and industrial pollutants in the water where they feed. Lesser Flamingos are also known to be preyed on by large species as diverse as Marabou storks, baboons, African fish eagles and wildcats.

However, flamingoes are one of the longer-lived bird species. Studies show that larger birds tend to live longer and birds in captivity live longest. The oldest known Greater Flamingo was 83 when it died at Adelaide Zoo in 2014. To put this in context, a small, wild song bird has less than a 50% chance of surviving more than two years but if it survives this period it can live quite a long time depending on the species and environment.

Flamingos' wide global distribution and striking appearance have long given them a special significance for people.

They were believed to be the living representation of the god Ra by the ancient Egyptians and their tongues were prized by gourmets. The ancient Moche people of Peru decorated their art with images of Flamingos and they are the national bird of the Bahamas. Miners in the South American Andes have been known to eat their fat for its supposed anti tuberculosis qualities and of course in the west how many beautifully manicured lawns and flower gardens display plastic Flamingo statuettes? It seems these beautiful birds still fascinate us. Long may they do so.


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