Very peculiar birds indeed are these we shall now consider, having a rosy or bright scarlet plumage, extraordinarily long legs and neck, and a large bill that is bent abruptly downward in the middle as though deformed. Associated with these obvious characters are other more or less anomalous features which have rendered their systematic position subject to not a little difference of opinion. Some authorities, as for example Garrod, have placed them among the gallinaceous birds, while others associated them with the Anseres, or Ducks and Geese, and still others incline to the view expressed by Huxley, who says that the group is ” so completely intermediate between the Anseres on the one side, and the Storks and Herons on the other, that it can be ranged with neither.” Shufeldt, who has very recently studied the osteology of the group, agrees entirely with Huxley, but Gadow, whom we are following, as well as Beddard and others, regards the points of agreement between the Flamingos and the Storks and Ibises as on the whole more numerous than with Ducks and Geese, and consequently ranges them as a suborder of the Stork-like birds (Ciconiiformes), which is immediately followed by the order containing the Ducks, Geese, etc. It appears that more complete knowledge of their ancestors and life will be necessary before their position can be absolutely fixed. In any event it is beyond question that the Flamingos are a very ancient group, since nearly three times as many fossil forms are known as have been recognized as now living. The oldest of these fossil forms comes from the upper Cretaceous of Denmark; the others are mainly from the middle and late Tertiary of Europe, with a single Pliocene form (Phaenicopterus copei) from central Oregon, which is very closely allied to our living species (P. Ruber).
Although long legs and necks are a prominent feature among the Herons, Storks, Ibises, etc., none of them makes such peculiar use of these members as the Flamingos are reputed to do. The long neck of the Flamingo is not produced by an excessive multiplication of vertebrae, for there are only eighteen, but by the great lengthening of the individual bones. The form of the bill is unique among birds. Stejneger well describes the lower mandible as “a deep and broad box, into which the upper one, which is much lower and narrower, fits like a lid; the sides are provided with quite Duck-like lamellae; and, to complete the oddness of the structure, both mandibles at the middle are bent abruptly downwards.” In feeding the Flamingos reverse the usual position of the head until the bent portion of the bill is parallel with the surface of the ground, thus working backward instead of forward as in other birds. They frequent shallow, preferably salt-water, marshes and lagoons, and their food consists of small mollusks, crustaceans, and vegetable matter, which they secure by exploring around in the soft mud much after the manner of Ducks, the water running out between the ridges of the bill. Hudson, who saw them in Patagonia, says that while feeding “the noise made by their beaks was continuous and resembled the sound produced by wringing out a wet cloth. They feed a great deal by day, but more, I think, by night.” Scott, who observed a large flock, estimated at one thousand birds, near Cape Sable, Florida, found them feeding by day ; they were there stretched out in a long line, sometimes in a single but as often in double rank. This line varied in length at different times, sometimes being fully a mile long. He also notes that “all the time the birds were feeding there were three small parties, varying from two to five individuals, that were apparently doing a sort of picket duty.” About every half hour the pickets were relieved by others, so that there were always a dozen or so on guard, and he found it impossible to approach within shooting distance. The nesting site of this flock Scott was not able to discover, but it was presumably not far from where he found them.
Flamingos are gregarious at all seasons, and especially during the breeding period. Mr. F. M. Chapman recently visited a colony on Andros Island in the Bahamas. The locality where they were found is described as only a few inches above sea level and is characterized by wide stretches of shallow lagoons bordered by red mangrove trees with occasional bare bars of gray marl. . . . Subsequent research showed that the locality was regularly frequented by these birds as a breeding resort, but that apparently a different spot was chosen each year. Eight groups or villages of nests were found within a radius of a mile, each evidently having been occupied but one year. The largest of these, placed on a mud-bar only an inch or two above the level of the surrounding water, was one hundred yards in length and averaged about thirty yards in width. An estimate, based on an actual count of a portion of this colony, gave a total of 2000 nests for an area of, approximately, only 27,000 square feet.” The nests, which were made of mud scooped up on the spot, were about fifteen or eighteen inches in diameter at the base and some twelve or thirteen at the top, and were from nine to twelve inches in height. Other observers describe the height of the nests as only a few inches, while the extreme of eighteen inches has been reported. The height of the nest appears rather to depend upon the depth of the water it is necessary to avoid: The eggs, one or two in number, are pure white and some three and one half by two inches. The manner in which the birds “sit” while incubating has been the subject of much discussion. It was formerly asserted that the long legs were permitted to hang down on either side of the nest, but it seems now to be definitely settled that such is not the case. Thus Mr. Abel Chapman, who found the European species nesting at the mouth of the Guadalquiver in Spain, distinctly states that they have “their long legs doubled under their bodies, the knees projecting as far as beyond the tail, and their graceful necks neatly coiled away among their back feathers, like a sitting Swan, with their heads resting on their breasts.” This position has also been recorded for the American species by Mr. C. J. Maynard, who visited nesting places in the Bahamas, where among hundreds of sitting birds “not one had its legs hanging down.”
As might be supposed, a flock of Flamingos, numbering as it often does hundreds or even thousands and tens of thousands of individuals, presents a truly imposing spectacle, the long files vividly suggesting a company of scarlet-coated soldiers. When migrating or when forced by alarm to take flight, they still hold to the long lines or V-shaped parties. “If the color on the water was novel,” says Scott, “that of a flock while in the air was truly. surprising, a cloud of flame-colored pink, like the hues of a brilliant sunset.” Hume, who saw them on the lakes of Sind, says that “to see one of these enormous flocks rise suddenly when alarmed is a wonderful spectacle; as you. approach them, so long as they remain on the water at rest, they look simply like a mass of faintly rosy snow. A rifle is fired, and then the exposure of the upper and under coverts of the wing turns the mass into a gigantic, brilliantly rosy scarf, waving to and fro in mighty folds as it floats away.”
On Lake Hannington, in the eastern province of the Uganda Protectorate, Sir Harry Johnston states that “it is no exaggeration to say that there must be close upon a million Flamingos (P. minor). These birds breed on a flat plain of mud about a mile broad at the north end of the lake, where their nests, in the form of little mounds of mud, appear like innumerable mud-hills. The birds, having hitherto been entirely unmolested by man, are quite tame. The adult bird has a body of rosy pink, the color of sunset clouds. The beak is scarlet and purple; the legs deep rose-pink inclining to scarlet. Apparently the mature plumage is not reached until the birds are about three years old. The young Flamingos very soon attain the same size as the rosy adults ; but their plumage, when they are full grown, is first gray-white and then the color of a pale tea-rose, before it attains its full sunset glory. On the north coast of the lake the belt of Flamingos must be nearly a mile broad from the edge of the lake outward. Seen from above, this mass of birds on its shoreward side is gray-white, then becomes white in the middle, and has a lakeward ring of the most exquisite rose-pink, the reason being that the birds on the outer edge of the semicircle are the young ones, while those farthest out in the lake are the oldest. It is not an easy matter to make the birds take to flight. When they do so suddenly and the shallow water is disturbed, the stench which arises is sickening. The noise from these birds can be heard for nearly a mile. The kronk, kronk, kronk, of the million, mingled with the hissings, squitterings, and splashings and the swish-swish-swish of those who are starting in flight, combine to make a tumult of sound in the presence of which one has to shout to one’s companion to be heard. It is curious to watch the ungainly motions of these birds when they wish to rise in the air. Their flight has to be preceded by an absurd gallop through the mud before they can lift themselves on their wings.”