1902 Encyclopedia > Flamingo


FLAMINGO (Portuguese i^a?jim#o, Spanish Flamenco), a Water-bird conspicuous for the bright scarlet or flame-coloured patch upon its wings, and long known by its classic name Phoenicopterus as an inhabitant of most of the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, in some of which it is still far from uncommon. Other species have since been discovered, and both its common and scientific names are now used in a general sense. The true position of the Flamingoes (Phoenicopteridce) has been much debated,

The Flamingo.

and ornithologists are as yet by no means agreed upon it. Professor Huxley (Proc. Zool. Soc, 1867, p. 460) considers the form " so completely intermediate between the Anserine birds on the one side, and the Storks and Herons on the other, that it can be ranged with neither." And he puts it by itself as the type of a group Amphimorphce under the larger assemblage of Desmognathw. To the present writer its affinity to the Anatidce seems on many accounts to be the strongest, but that it should stand as a distinct family is manifest.

Though not a few birds have in proportion to the size of their body very long legs and a very long neck, yet the way in which both are employed by the Flamingo seems to be absolutely singular. In taking its food this bird reverses the ordinary position of its head so as to hold the crown downwards and to look backwards. The peculiar formation of the bill, which to the ordinary observer, looks as if broken, is of course correlated with this habit of feeding, as well as the fact that the maxilla is (contrary to what obtains in most birds) not only highly movable, but is much smaller than the mandíbula—while the latter is practically fixed. Both jaws are, however, beset with lamella}, as in most of the Duck-tribe, and the food is thereby sifted out of the mud as the Flamingo wades with its long neck stretching to the bottom of the shallow waters it frequents. Still more extraordinary is one of the uses made of its long legs. The hen stands upon them while performing that duty which in other birds is rightly called "sitting." This fact was noticed so long ago as 1683 by Dampier, and his statement has been confirmed by the evidence collected by many other travellers. It does not appear, however, that the act has been personally witnessed by any author subsequent to him, and therefore his quaint and obviously truthful account of the way in which Flamingoes build their nests and hatch their young, as observed by him in the Cape Verd Islands, may here be quoted :—" They build their Nests in shallow Ponds, where there is much Mud, which they scrape together, making-little Hillocks, like small Islands, appearing out of the Water a foot and half high from the bottom. They make the foundation of these Hillocks broad, bringing them up tapering to the top, where they leave a small hollow pit to lay their Eggs in; and when they either lay their Eggs, or hatch them, they stand all the while, not on the Hillock, but close by it with their Legs on the ground and in the water, resting themselves against the Hillock, and covering the hollow Nest upon it with their Bumps : For their Legs are very long; and building thus, as they do, upon the ground, they could neither draw their Legs conveniently into their Nests, nor sit down upon them otherwise than by resting their whole bodies there, to the prejudice of their eggs or their young, were it not for this admirable contrivance, which they have by natural instinct. They never lay more than two Eggs, and seldom fewer. The young ones cannot fly till they are almost full grown, but will run prodigiously fast; yet we have taken many of them."—Dampier, New Voyage round the World, ed. 2, corrected, vol. i. p. 71, London, 1697.

It is of course only under very favourable circumstances that such nests as these can be built. When time or place is wanting the hens seem to drop their eggs at random, as Mr J. W. Clark was told they usually do at this day in the South of France (Ibis, 1870, p. 441), where a nest has not been seen for some years. Flamingoes are eminently gregarious. Their favourite resorts are salt-lakes—in-deed these may be said to be a prime necessity ; and when, as often happens, they are diminished by drought, the birds have to take long flights in quest of new haunts. Thus some of the wanderers occasionally get separated from the main body, and appear in various unwonted spots. On the wing the Flamingo is described as presenting a singular appearance, its neck and legs being stretched out in a continuous straight line. When feeding or at rest, a flock of these birds, owing to their red plum-age, has often been likened to a body of British soldiers. The young appear to be a long time in arriving at the full beauty of their plumage, and as the sexes are said to differ greatly in size, some of the difficulties which the determina-tion of species in this genus presents may be excused. No fewer than four species of Phoenicopterus have been described as inhabiting the Old World. There is the large bird known to the ancients, Temminck's P. antiquorum, which cer-tainly ranges from the Cape Verd Islands to the Caspian and to India, if not further. The P. erythrceus of Jules Verreaux has been described as differing in its brighter plumage, and is supposed to be a native of Southern and Western Africa, but it is also said to have strayed to Europe. Then two smaller species (P. minor, Geoffroy, and P. rubidus, Feilden)—the one from Africa the other from India, have also been described, but whether their existence can be substantiated remains to be seen. Four species have likewise been indicated as belonging to the New-World. There is first a large and very brilliantly-coloured bird to which the Linnaean name P. ruber has been con-tinued, inhabiting suitable localities from Florida south-wards to an undetermined latitude. To this species Mr Salvin (Trans. Zool. Soc, ix. p. 498) refers the P. glyphorhynchus of G. B. Gray, founded on a specimen from the Galapagos. Then there is the P. chilensis of Gmelin (P. ignipalliatus of later writers) which in colour-ing more resembles the European species, and is found in various parts of South America. Lastly comes the P. andinus of Philippi, which is easily distinguished from all others through the want of a back-toe, and was regarded by Bonaparte as meriting generic separation under the name of Phcenicoparrus. This appears to have its home on the salt-lakes of the elevated desert of Atacama.

The fossil remains of a Flamingo have been recognized from Lower and Middle Tertiary beds in France, and the species, which appears to have been very close to that commonly called P. antiquorum, has received the name of P. croizeti from Professor Gervais. But a more interesting discovery is that by Professor A. Milne-Edwards of no fewer than five species of an extinct form of Phcenicopteridai, named by him Palcelodus (Ois. Foss. de la France, ii. p, 58). These are from lacustrine deposits of the Miocene epoch. The same distinguished zoologist also refers to this family remains designated by him Agnopterus, and those of the "Flornis" (properly Helornis) of M. Aymard. (A. N.)


3 By a mistake, it was before stated (BIRDS, vol. iii. p. 772) that the hen Flamingo "sits astride with dangling legs."

In Greece and Asia Minor, however, it is rare, and to this cause is most likely to he attributed Aristotle's silence concerning it, though it was known to Aristophanes.
Thus confirming the opinion of Linnseus a century old (Syst. Nat.,
ed. 12, i. p. 230):—"Medium inter Anseres et Grallas, si quis ad prsecedentem ordinem referat, forte non errat." He himself places it among the latter.

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