Flamingos are known for their vibrant pink feathers, but baby flamingos are actually born with grey or whitish down feathers. It’s only as they grow older that their feathers obtain the characteristic pink hue that flamingos are so famous for. So how do flamingos go from grey to pink?
Why are flamingos pink?
Flamingos get their pink color from the carotenoid pigments in the algae and small crustaceans that make up their diet. Carotenoids are organic pigments that produce bright red, orange, and yellow colors. As flamingos eat more of these carotenoid-rich foods, the pigments are deposited into their feathers, turning them pink. The most abundant carotenoid in a flamingo’s diet is astaxanthin, which provides a deep pink color.
Babies are born grey because they have not yet eaten enough carotenoid-containing food to accumulate pigments in their feathers. Over time, as they are fed crop milk (which contains some carotenoids) and then switch to eating shrimp and algae, their coloration changes to the familiar flamingo pink.
Flamingo chick development
When flamingo chicks first hatch from their eggs they have soft, downy gray or white feathers. Their beak and legs are straight and not yet fully developed. Within a week, their beaks start to bend downward as they begin to feed on crop milk produced by their parents. Crop milk contains some carotenoids, starting the color change process. At around 2-3 weeks, the chicks moult their down and start to grow juvenile feathers which may be whitish-gray or light brown. Their legs also straighten during this time as they prepare to stand and walk.
By 6-8 weeks, the chicks are ready to join group crèches with other young flamingos while parents leave to feed. Their legs are fully developed and they start to feed themselves by filtering algae and small invertebrates from the water. With greater carotenoid intake from their own feeding, their color deepens to a light pink. Between 2-3 years old, flamingos finally obtain their full adult pink plumage.
|Newly hatched||Gray or white down|
|2-3 weeks||Whitish-gray or light brown juvenile feathers|
|6-8 weeks||Light pink from limited carotenoid intake|
|2-3 years||Vibrant pink adult plumage|
Why are some flamingos brighter than others?
Even among adults, some flamingos will be brighter pink than others. This variation occurs for several reasons:
- Diet – Flamingos that consume more carotenoid-rich foods like algae and shrimp will be more vibrantly colored.
- Genetics – Some genetic variations affect how efficiently flamingos can metabolize carotenoids for deposition into feathers.
- Health – Poor nutrition or illness can cause paler coloration in flamingos by reducing carotenoid availability.
- Age – Older flamingos tend to be paler, as carotenoid pigments break down over time.
- Environment – Harsh conditions like drought or pollution may limit food resources and carotenoid access.
The most intensely colored flamingos are healthy adults in their prime that have abundant food resources in their wetland environment. Individual variation in color is normal and due to differences in age, genetics, and nutrition.
How do flamingos maintain their color?
Flamingos cannot synthesize carotenoid pigments internally, so they need to continually consume these colorful compounds through their diet. If they stopped eating carotenoid-rich foods, their pink coloring would gradually fade to white. To maintain their brillant hue, flamingos have evolved some behavioral and physiological adaptations:
- Flamingos filter feed up to 8 hours per day, constantly consuming algae, larvae, and crustaceans.
- Their weird upside-down beak is specialized for filter feeding.
- They prefer shallow, salty or alkaline water environments where algae and brine shrimp thrive.
- Crop milk produced by parents helps pass carotenoids to chicks.
- Flamingos will migrate or relocate to find suitable feeding habitat if needed.
- Excreting urate salts through their kidneys helps concentrate carotenoids in body tissues.
By seeking out productive feeding habitats and efficiently filtering small food items, flamingos can meet their high carotenoid needs to maintain bright plumage. If conditions change and food becomes scarce, flamingos may lose their color until conditions improve again.
While adult flamingos strut in pink feather finery, babies hatch with white or gray down. Only through a diet rich in carotenoids do they eventually achieve the reddish-pink hue for which flamingos are renowned. Their coloration depends on life-long dietary intake of these pigments. Flamingos have evolved elegant adaptations for filter feeding so they can constantly consume the algae, shrimp, and other small items that provide carotenoids. Though some variation exists, the most vibrant individuals are healthy adults with reliable access to these colorful dietary compounds. For flamingos, being pink takes work!
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