American Flamingo

Phoenicopterus ruber Order: Phoenicopteriformes Family: Phoenicopteridae (Flamingos)
Phoenicopterus ruber Order: Phoenicopteriformes Family: Phoenicopteridae (Flamingos)

This exquisite yet funky bird of the American tropics is usually extremely rare in the United States. Although he searched south Florida and the Keys extensively for it, John James Audubon only briefly saw some at a distance and never managed to “collect” any, basing his drawings on specimens from others.

Flamingos have always mystified taxonomists. They were often considered to belong to the order Ciconiiformes with storks, ibises, and spoonbills; early genetic studies supported this. They’ve also been placed in Anseriformes with waterfowl, primarily due to flamingos sharing some feather lice otherwise only found on ducks and geese. A 2014 study put them in a superorder with doves and sandgrouse. Some molecular work puts them close to grebes.

Whatever the taxonomy, flamingos are wondrously flamboyant. They’ve easily been kept in captivity, though captive breeding in zoos was not successful until 1958. They apparently breed more easily in large flocks, and so now when a zoo is trying to augment a small population, they use mirrors to give the birds the impression that their flock is bigger than it is. Because they are large, easy to handle, and popular with zoo-goers and funders, a great deal more is known about their physiology than that of many other species.

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