Flamingos are pink because of the food they eat. The high concentration of beta-carotene in the shrimp, algae, and larva that flamingos eat imparts a pink dye called canthaxanthin into the flamingos, turning them pink. Flamingos are not by themselves pink and are born with grey feathers.
If you have ever wondered why flamingos are pink, you are not alone. Many people wonder why flamingos have such an unusual color for a seabird (or any other kind of bird, really).
“A flock of flirting flaminoes is pure, passionate, pink pandemonium – a frenetic flamingle-mangle – a discordant discotheque of delirious dancing, flamboyant feathers, and flamingo lingo.” — Charley Harper
After all, other seabirds such as gulls or pelicans do not have such gorgeous colorful plumage. If you look at other birds that co-exist in the same or similar environments to flamingos, you will notice that their plumage is always gray and white.
So, why are flamingos so distinctive? Why is their plumage pink rather than gray and why? Well, believe it or not, as we will explore in this article, the color of their feathers is linked to their diet. In fact, as you will see, their diet is the only factor in the coloration of flamingos of all species.
Flamingos Are Not Born Pink
One of the most surprising things about flamingos’ feathers is not that they are pink but that this happens over time as these birds grow up. In fact, flamingoes are born with gray feathers.
If you have ever seen a newly born flamingo, you would notice that they do not dissimilar to a newly born seagull or a newly born pelican. But, when it comes to plumage, the difference between flamingoes and the other avian species in similar environments is that as flamingoes grow, their plumage becomes pink while that of other birds tends to become mainly white (although they often keep some gray).
So, what is it about baby flamingos that make them grow up to look so eye-catching and distinctive if we compare them with other seabirds?
Flamingos Are What They Eat
As I pointed out earlier the reason that flamingos grow to have pink plumage is down to their diet.
While seagulls are not in any way particular about what they eat and their diet pretty much includes anything that they come across: fish, insects, garbage, fries, seeds, etc., flamingos are a lot more selective when it comes to their diet. Primarily, flamingos nourish themselves with water organisms, mostly algae, and shrimp. But why would that affect the color of their plumage?
It so happens that shrimp and some algae are all high in pigments that are known as carotenoids. It is precisely these pigments that make flamingos grow to have pink feathers. Although not all flamingos have the same coloration.
According to SeaWorld:
“Father color varies with species, ranging from pale pink to crimson or vermilion. Caribbean flamingos have the brightest coloration: crimson or vermilion. The Chilean flamingo is pale pink. Feather coloration is derived from carotenoid pigments found in a flamingo’s food. Male and female flamingo coloration is the same. Newly-batched chicks are gray or white.”
It is no coincidence that when we boil shrimp (which are high in carotenoids), they turn pink. So, even though shrimp look gray as soon as they are boiled they become pink. Because flamingos’ diet is primarily made out of foods that are rich in carotenoids, they eventually become pink and, not only that, but they are able to maintain their eye-catching pink plumage for as long as they live.
It is their selective diet that not only includes foods rich in carotenoids but, even more importantly, their diet excludes anything else. The main difference with other seabirds is that those would eat pretty much anything they encounter. If flamingos were to change their diet and began consistently eating what seagulls, for instance, eat, pretty soon their plumage will begin to fade. This would be a gradual process. Their plumage would not change overnight but eventually, their pink plumage will fade. First, their feathers would become a more faded shade of pink and may, eventually, become totally white.
“Look at my arms flailing. I’m like a flamingo on Ritalin.” — Dr. Sheldon Cooper, from The Big Bang Theory
What Other Foods Are Rich In Carotenoids?
Believe it or not, human beings also eat plenty of foods that are rich in carotenoids. But it doesn’t seem to affect our pigmentation in the same way as flamingos.
The difference is that our diet is a lot more diverse than that of flamingos. But to understand this a bit better, we would need to look at those foods we, human beings, eat and that are rich in carotenoids.
One look at them will reveal that we do not base our diet on carotenoids. Here is the list of foods rich in these pigments:
- Sweet potatoes
You will notice that all these fruits and vegetables have one thing in common: they all have similar colors, including orange, red, and yellow. They are not the only foods that are rich in these pigments as, we have seen, algae and shrimp (the staples of flamingos’ diet) are also rich in carotenoids. But most people’s intake of these pigments comes in the shape and those fruits and vegetables in our list. Because, even people who eat a lot of carrots, sweet potatoes, apricots, etc. also include many other different foods in their diet, there is no real risk that their skin color would change because of this.
“I’m doubtful about the temper of your flamingo. Shall we try the experiment?” — Lewis Carroll
As with flamingos, any change of diet would only affect skin coloration gradually over a certain period of time and never overnight. But it is also likely that if a human being would base his or her diet solely on foods rich in carotenoids, that other health issues would arise before any pigmentation changes would become noticeable. In order words, the last thing to worry about when eating (or basing one’s diets) on foods rich in carotenoids pigments is any change in skin color.
This is, clearly, not the case when it comes to flamingos that manage to get all they need to grow and survive from algae and shrimp. Flamingos are not born with pink feathers and are not genetically predisposed to develop pink plumage as they grow. There is nothing that sets these birds apart from other species. They eventually develop pink feathers because of their diet and their diet only. But because this is a gradual process, the pink feathers take a while to develop until they reach adulthood.