The Greater Flamingo – A Winters Tale

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By Dee Marshall

Flamingos running

The greater flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus) is an ungainly bird. Its long spindly legs and large curved beak give it a rather ugly appearance, but it has a strange charm. Its pink webbed feet seem oversized for its legs. Indeed the legs look too thin to support the body and its beak looks large and heavy.

Because of their size, flamingos have to run for a few metres in order to take off. It is a strange spectacle to see these large birds running through the shallows, flapping their outstretched wings. During flight, the neck and legs are stretched out in a long line and their beating wings reveal red wing coverts and black primary and secondary flight feathers.

They fly in formation and it is wonderful to watch their elongated shapes overhead. With their large wings beating slowly and regularly, they can maintain speeds of up to 60 kilometres per hour for hundreds of kilometres.

Flamingos often stand on one leg, the other tucked beneath the body. They sleep in this position with their head buried in their wing and when the wind blows they sometimes sway slightly in the breeze -a curious and slightly risky position that seems to defy the impossible!

Their beak is unique. It is angled so that the birds can feed while standing with their heads lowered, scooping up their meals from the water. They feed by slowly walking through the shallow water and moving their head from side to side. In this way, the birds stir up the mud, then suck water through their bills and filter out small shrimp, seeds, blue-green algae, microscopic organisms and molluscs. Their beaks are specially adapted to separate mud and silt from the food they eat. This filtering of food items is assisted by hairy structures, called lamellae, that line the mandibles, and by a large rough-surfaced tongue. The lamellae filter the water, catching the algae and small invertebrates the bird finds in the water or soft mud. The pink or reddish colour of flamingos comes from carotenoid in their diet of blue-green algae. Flamingos whose sole diet is blue-green algae are darker in colour than those who get it second-hand from animals such as the brine shrimp that have already digested the algae.

Flamingos are very social birds living in colonies that can number many thousands. The greater flamingo is found on mudflats and in shallow coastal lagoons in parts of Africa, southern Asia and southern Europe.

In France, these birds are found in the Camargue, a wetland area in the south bordering the Mediterranean. With its network of saltwater and freshwater lakes and marshes the area attracts a great variety of birds. Situated on the migration route of birds between north Europe and Africa, it provides an important resting place – a major migratory stopover for ducks and other water birds. Over 150,000 birds transit here each year.

Flying

It became a ;Parc Naturel Regional’ in 1970. Nature conservation and the development of human activities are high on the agenda and the park aims to help natural, cultural and human activities to coexist. It has an exceptional biodiversity and is home to a great variety of flora and fauna. Preserving the quality of the water, the biodiversity and the human activities in the area is of primary concern.

The Camargue is therefore an area where water management is extremely important. It is on the edge of the Mediterranean, just in the Rhone Delta, between the two arms of the river. To the west, the Petit Rhone flows into the sea at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. To the east, the perimeter of the park stretches past the natural border of the river and encompasses the natural areas on its left bank that have a high environmental value.

Within the Regional Park of the Camargue is the ’Parc Ornithologique‘, founded in 1949. It covers 60 hectares and is a protected reserve for the water birds of the area. It is home to many species including the greater flamingo, herons, swans, egrets, avocets and many others. Coypu can also be seen enjoying the waterways that run through the park.

The park has become a centre for conservation of the greater flamingo and through research and protection programmes, the birds are flourishing. In the park, a centre for treating injured birds has also been created and on average they look after 350 birds each year. This winter, however, the numbers soared and the centre was inundated with birds suffering because of the cold conditions.

The south of France rarely sees temperatures drop below freezing. However, this winter was extremely severe and the Camargue experienced temperatures that dropped to below -10°C with the disastrous result of 90% of the wetlands in the park becoming frozen.

These conditions caused a natural catastrophe for all the birds of the Camargue. For the flamingos, it meant they could not reach their staple food. Almost all of their wetland area was frozen, transforming the shallows into skating rinks. Deprived of their habitat, food and a safe haven, the situation for the flamingos was serious. Spending most of their time, waking or sleeping, in water, meant they had nowhere to go. Their feet and beaks are usually permanently in the water searching for food. Their food was inaccessible. There was also no shallow water for them to be able to take off or land.

Incapable of reaching their natural food that was frozen in the water, many starved to death. With temperatures falling and winds of up to 90 kmh, conditions were extremely difficult. Those who did not die of hunger died as a result of the cold or found they were prisoners – their feet frozen to the ice. Many birds suffered broken feet as they struggled to free themselves.

Resting

Some flew for hours circling the area searching for food and looking for water on which to land. Sometimes it took hours for them to find a small area that had not frozen where they could land safely. They tired and collapsed exhausted, often injuring themselves as they were often forced to land on ice.

In the treatment centre, it was almost impossible to restore the blood circulation in their legs. A unique method was conceived to deal with this problem – a suspension system was created so that the birds could stay upright without putting weight on their legs. This saved a large number of birds and those who were still struggling outside were fed dried dog food and broken rice.

More than 200 dead birds were found – this number only accounts for birds that were accessible – many more undoubtedly perished but were not found. The Camargue breathed a sigh of relief that the damage was nowhere near as extreme as the havoc wreaked by the freezing conditions in the winter of 1985, when more than 5,000 dead birds were found.

However, the general population is not under threat as there are an estimated 30,000 greater flamingos on French soil. The protected area of The Camargue provides a safe haven for these strange birds that have enjoyed complete protection in France since 1981.

The European population of the greater flamingo dramatically increased between 1970 and 1990, mainly in France. The species exists on ten sites in Europe. If there is a problem on any one of these sites, it could have serious consequences for these animals. The main threat is the destruction of Mediterranean wetland areas but the Camargue is one of the success stories for the greater flamingo.

Mating

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