As its name would suggest, the Greater flamingo is the largest of the flamingoes, with a length of around 150 cm. They are very distinctive birds and are unlikely to be confused with any species other than with other flamingoes. They are pinkish-white in colour and have long necks as well as very long pink legs and relatively small webbed feet. Their fairly narrow wings have black flight feathers and their wing coverts are red. The characteristic colouring of the flamingoes is a result of the beta carotene in their diet, and has given rise to their common name, which is derived from the Latin for “flame”.
The bill of the Greater flamingo is a distinctive shape, curving downwards, and is pink with a black tip. In flight their long necks are stretched out in front and their long legs trail behind, once again rendering them very distinctive. Young birds lack the pink or red of their elders and are a rather dull grey and white.
Greater flamingoes have a very extensive range, being found in Africa, Asia and parts of southern Europe. Their preferred habitat is shallow coastal lagoons and mudflats, where they use their feet to stir up the mud. They suck water into their bills, using their tongues as a pump, and have filters to retain the shrimps, worms, algae and other tiny organisms on which they feed. They feed with their heads submerged and upside down and sweep their heads from side to side, presenting a very odd picture.
They are very sociable birds and, where feeding conditions are suitable, may be found in very large groups of up to hundreds or even thousands of birds. They often stand on one leg, with the other well tucked up against the body, but the reason for this is not clearly understood. They have a loud honking call, not unlike that of a goose, but may also call much more softly when they are feeding.
Greater flamingoes are monogamous and their nest is a simple mound of mud scraped together in shallow water. The females lay a single chalky-white egg that hatches after an incubation period of about 30 days.
The scientific binomial for the Greater flamingo is Phoenicopterus ruber; Phoenicopterus from the Greek for “bright red wings”; and ruber from the Latin for “red”. Thus a bird with bright red wings. With a bird as exotically shaped as a flamingo (used as a live croquet stick in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland”), you would think they could have done better than that!