Compared to many species of birds on the verge of extinction, the iconic pink flamingo is doing relatively well. Even near threatened species like the Lesser Flamingo have millions of individuals. Yet the population of many flamingo species is declining—and climate change may be to blame.
Flamingos have very specialized feeding strategies. When a flamingo eats, it turns its head completely upside down and filters water through its specialized beak. Their beak captures tiny bits of algae and brine shrimp, which also contributes to their unusual pink color.
This unique feeding strategy allows the flamingo to access food many other animals can’t, but also means that if their ecosystem changes they are less able to adapt.
Drought is shrinking habitats
While the flamingo has proliferated in places where many other animals can’t survive, such as Lake Natron, they depend on a certain level of salinity in their water. Flamingos have special salt glands in their faces that allow them to excrete excess salt from their water, allowing them to eat and drink in places other animals can’t.
This amazing survival strategy is the key to their success across the world, but flamingos don’t do well with rapid changes to salinity in their environments. Decreased rainfall in some areas has caused the salinity in their habitats to increase in some places, while flooding in others has decreased salinity.
Flamingos also need a certain depth to protect their nests and allow them to comfortably wade. If the water level gets too low predators can access their nests, while too high means they are unable to wade and their nests wash away.
Another problem is that invasive species are killing flamingos. Lake Bogaria is the habitat of over half the world’s flamingos, but an invasive species moving into their habitat is causing them to become ensnared and die from starvation.
Declining populations are raising alarm
Although there are still millions of flamingos, most flamingo populations are in decline. It’s enough for several species to have their status changed from Least Concern to Near Threatened or Vulnerable. Scientists are concerned not because of their current numbers, but by how much the population is dropping.
Many countries depend on the beautiful and peaceful animals for ecotourism. The flamingos in Tanzania alone are responsible for as much as 17.5% of Tanzania’s GDP, and 25% of all foreign exchange revenue. Losing these beautiful animals would be catastrophic for the country, as well as a big loss to the flamingo population.
Locals learning to protect flamingos
The good news for flamingos is that people of all walks of life are interested in protecting them. Many locals have learned to conserve water to help protect lake levels, not just in Africa but in the Andes and other places where flamingo species live.
Local government has also moved to protect habitat, and make changes so that ecotourism can continue without disrupting the flamingos and their habitat.
While the future of flamingos and their habitats is still in question, these beautiful animals are in much better shape than many other species of bird. There’s good reason to believe that with a helping hand from the humans that love them, these graceful animals will continue to wade along the shores of their favorite stomping grounds for generations to come.