These unmistakable waterbirds seem ludicrously proportioned, especially when flying overhead, dangling their long legs and neck. Two species flamingos occur in southern Africa: the greater flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber) is the larger and has a black tip to its pale bill; the lesser flamingo (Phoenicopterus minor) is smaller pinker, with a dark red bill.

Their huge gatherings in the soda lakes of the rift valley are among the world’s most impressive wildlife spectacles.

  • Flamingos feed with their heads upside-down, scything their bills back and forth underwater to filter minute organisms, and pumping out excess water with their tongues. This is the same basic technique as a whale filtering plankton through its baleen plates.
  • Though the two species often occur together, greater flamingoes feed on larger organisms, whereas lesser flamingoes live almost entirely on blue-green algae, so competition is avoided.
  • Flamingoes on their breeding grounds display in tightly synchronised formation, hundreds of birds switching their heads from side to side in a ‘flag dance’ and ‘saluting’ with bright scarlet wings.
  • Despite their gangly appearance, flamingoes can swim well when out of their wading depth.
  • Flamingos obtain their pinkness from pigments called carotenoids, which are found in the tiny crustaceans on which they feed. In captivity they require a special diet in order to retain this colouration.

African Safari Tours

By Mike Unwin
United Kingdom UK

Mike is an award winning wildlife writer, editor of Travel Zambia magazine and author of the Bradt Guide to Southern African Wildlife.

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