One term to use to describe a flock of flamingos is “a flamboyance of flamingos.” The term “stand” is also often used. In Cape Town and its environs one can see not one but two species of the beautiful pink birds: the greater flamingo and the lesser flamingo. They are fairly simple to distinguish from one another. The greater flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus) averages 130 to 160 centimeters in height and the lesser is approximately 90 centimeters in height. The greater flamingo is the more common and is less vivid in coloration. It is a pale pink with some darker trim as opposed to the darker pink of the lesser flamingo, Phoeniconaias minor. Another distinguishing feature of the greater flamingo is its yellow eyes. The lesser flamingo has reddish eyes. The smaller species also has a darker beak. The greater flamingo is more often seen in Cape Town. Some of its favourite locales are the Milnerton lagoon, the Strandfontein sewage works, Kommetjie, Rondevlei and the Black River near Pinelands. The greater flamingo’s smaller cousin can be seen at the Langebaan lagoon and the Velddrift salt works.
None breed in the greater Cape Town area. The greater flamingo breeds in areas northward such as Sua Pan in Botswana, approximately 825 kilometers to the northeast. The lesser flamingo’s nearest breeding area is at the Kamfers Dam in Kimberley, approximately 962 kilometers to the northeast. Thus, flamingos are well traveled birds.
The lesser flamingo, like the greater flamingo, must breed and raise chicks in large and dense colonies on alkaline and saline lakes and salt pans or in tidal lagoons where the food they consume (microscopic blue-green algae, diatoms and tiny invertebrates called rotifers) occur. Within the bill of the lesser flamingo is thousands of microscopic lamellae which strain the food eaten. The greater flamingos also need alkaline and extremely saline waters. They have a more varied diet. In addition to algae and diatoms, the menu for the greater flamingo includes larval and adult aquatic insects, brine shrimp, decaying leaves and small fish. Tiny food is filtered by very small platelets in the bill. For both species, one egg is laid each season and the breeding schedule is irregular, depending heavily on the timing of the rains. On average, the lesser flamingo lives approximately 40 years and the greater flamingo’s life span is up to 50 years, although some individuals have survived to the age of 80.
The lesser flamingo is classified as Near Threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (the IUCN). The greater flamingo is classified by the IUCN as Least Concern based on total world population and total distribution. The lesser flamingos occur within the African continent and several fragmented populations in India, as compared to the greater flamingos’ range that includes not only many nations of Africa, but also Europe and the Middle East. There are also populations in India and Sri Lanka.
Some happy memories of my college years include working as a volunteer on weekends at a local zoological park in the United States and listening to the raucous calls of the flamingos there; these calls are a sort of goose like honk mingled with croaks. Cape Town residents do not have to go to a zoological park to see and hear the flamboyant flamingos.