What Do Flamingos Eat?

Written by Krishna Maxwell
Updated: October 10, 2022
Image Credit Roxane 134/Shutterstock.com
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Key Points

  • Flamingoes are omnivorous filter-feeders. They fill their beaks with water and sift out plants, insects, shrimp, and fish.
  • Flamingoes may look delicate but they thrive in water that is toxic to most other animals,
  • Flamingoes are pink because of the high levels of beta-carotene in the food they eat.

Flamingos are some bizarre-looking birds. From their long and narrow legs to their brilliantly pink plumage, they certainly stand apart from any other bird on the planet. But those unique qualities go hand in hand with this bird’s diet and foraging habits. Flamingos wouldn’t be who they are without their diets, and they wouldn’t be able to feed as they can without their unique physiological quirks. Here’s everything you need to know about what flamingos eat.

What do Flamingos Eat?

What Do Flamingos Eat
Flamingos are omnivores and will eat anything from shrimp to seeds.

A-Z-Animals.com

Flamingos are omnivores that won’t pass up the opportunity for either meat or vegetarian options, but the diet for these birds can vary some depending on the species. There are six different flamingo species, and their diets can be affected by both the availability of food and the design of their bills. Flamingos with deep-keeled bills include the James’, Andean, and lesser flamingo. Species with shallow-keeled bills include the Chilean, great, and Caribbean flamingos.

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Out of necessity, deep-keeled flamingo species tend to be more vegetarian than their shallow-keeled brethren. Plankton and algae make up the bulk of their diets. They’re particularly prone to feeding on blue-green algae known as cyanobacteria that possesses a high nutritional content and is especially high in beta carotene. By contrast, shallow-keeled flamingo species tend to have more carnivorous diets. This often takes the form of small invertebrates, insect larva, small fish, and brine shrimp. The dietary habits of flamingos are very similar whether it’s an Old World or New World species, but they’re distinct enough that multiple species can often occupy the same habitat without having to compete for dinner.

However, flamingos won’t be feasting on a diet like that as soon as they’re born. Chicks are instead fed by a substance known as crop milk that their parents produce in the back of their throats and then regurgitate to their young. It’s a diet high in protein and fat, designed to facilitate the rapid growth of chicks. They’ll continue to feed like this until they reach 9 to 13 weeks of age, at which time they’ll transition to an adult diet. It’s at this point that the flamingo will begin to develop its trademark pink hue — a side effect of the beta carotene that’s abundant in both blue algae and in brine shrimp which also feed on this algae.

Here’s a list of the foods that make up the typical flamingo’s diet:

  • Blue-green algae (cyanobacteria)
  • Red algae
  • Invertebrates
  • Small fish
  • Insects
  • Insect larva
  • Brine shrimp

How do Flamingos Forage For Food?

Flamingos are filter feeders like baleen whales — meaning that they stick their bills in shallow bodies of water and then push out the water and mud while amassing nutritious solid matter inside the bill. The flamingo’s quick and powerful tongue pushes away any food that’s too large or too small to ingest. What remains is then carried past a series of comb-like structures called lamellae which filter out water while holding food in. This filtering process happens incredibly quickly, but the speed can vary depending on the species of flamingo. Lesser flamingos can pump water from their bill 20 times over the course of a second, while Caribbean flamingos can only accomplish the same about 4 to 5 times in a second.

The shape of the bill affects both what a flamingo eats and how they filter their food. Flamingos with deep-keeled mandibles will stroke their bills shallowly in the surface of the water, while those with shallow-keeled mandibles will instead bury their bills in the deeper mud to stir up potential prey. They may also stomp their feet in the mud for the same effect. The typical flamingo will spend hours a day going through this filtering process, but they require a surprisingly small amount of food. Lesser flamingos only need about two dry ounces of food per day. And while they feed in salty waters, flamingos drink only freshwater. In contrast to their low food intake, the typical flamingo will swallow gallons of freshwater each day.

Flamingoes have several adaptations that allow them to survive in harsh environments and thrive in water that would be toxic to other birds. In addition to filtering water for their food, they can filter salt out of the same water so that they can drink it. Some of the plants that they consume, such as blue-green algae, are very toxic to other animals. The cyanobacteria that flamingoes thrive on is deadly to most other animals.

What do flamingos eat-flock
A flock of Flamingos feeding in a lake.

iStock.com/GTMedia

What Animals Eat Flamingos?

Flamingos might seem like easy prey thanks to their bright pink plumage, but the habitats they choose to feed in actually serve as one of the biggest impediments to predators. Since their feeding grounds are in the water, they’re inaccessible to many of the natural predators in their ecosystem throughout much of the year. In some instances, flamingos have even adapted to survive in environments far too harsh for the average predator. Tanzania’s Lake Natron and Kenya’s Lake Bogoria are toxic due to their harsh salinity levels and can even burn away human skin. It’s only thanks to their long and scaly legs that they can survive in these waters, but it does an effective job of keeping most predators away.

But when the water levels start to drop, flamingos become more vulnerable to land predators. Big cats like cheetahs, lions, and leopards have all been known to target African flamingo species — and while hyenas are a regular nuisance, they’re rarely a deadly threat. New World species can face threats from Geoffrey’s cat, Andean fox, and jaguar. In some instances, flamingo species have even been prey for pythons and wild boars.

The biggest threat to flamingos is usually other bird species. Full-grown flamingos are too big to be a reasonable target for most birds, but that’s not the case for eggs and chicks. Storks and eagles feed on both, and multiple vulture species have been known to target living chicks as well as the carcasses of adult flamingos left behind by other predators.

Are Flamingos Pink Because They Eat Shrimp?

In a way, yes — but flamingos are more specifically pink because of a specific type of plankton in their diet. The algae that flamingos feed on is rich in beta carotene, and that’s the chemical that causes their plumage to develop its pink hue. Shrimp absorb this chemical when eating the plankton and then transfer the chemicals to the flamingo when it devours them — but flamingos can also get their color from feeding directly on the algae or on fly larva.

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What Do Flamingos Eat
What Do Flamingos Eat
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About the Author

Krishna is a lifelong animal owner and advocate. She owns and operates a small farm in upstate New York which she shares with three dogs, four donkeys, one mule, and a cat. She holds a Bachelors in Agricultural Technology and has extensive experience in animal health and welfare. When not working with her own animals and tending her farm, Krishna is helping other animal owners with behavior or management issues and teaching neighboring farmers about Regenerative Agriculture practices.

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