National Geographic
Menu

Message From a 50-Year-Old Flamingo

On Wednesday 13th February 2013, a British tourist, Nick Armour, recovered a dead flamingo bearing a metal ring near Lake Bogoria (Kenya). This lesser flamingo (Hoenicopterus minor) was described as looking very old and the ring number confirmed an age of 50 years! This flamingo was a messenger from the past, the product of a life cruising between saline lakes in search of spirulina algae. We need to learn from the past and heed this amazing story of a miraculous life in the changing Great Rift Valley of East Africa…

Adam Riley / www.rockjumperbirding.com
Lesser flamingos congregating in Lake Nakuru National Park (Kenya). These are natural phenomena that never cease to amaze! (Adam Riley / www.rockjumperbirding.com)

Astonishingly, this old pink flamingo had, as a chick, been rescued from certain death in Lake Magadi in 1962. Alan Root, a wildlife filmmaker who led the 1962 rescue and ringing effort along with the late Leslie Brown said in an email that: “Another old friend passed away. It gives me a good feeling to know that this latest find probably means there are still hundreds of ‘our’ birds of that age, paddling around in our lakes.”

Art Wolfe / www.artwolfe.com
A hippopotamus interupts a flock of flamingos feeding in Lake Narasha (Kenya). A wonderful interaction in the wild captured from above. (Art Wolfe / www.artwolfe.com)

This 50-year-old flamingo is probably not alone with other flamingo species surviving well over 50 or even 60 in captivity. The oldest known greater flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus) is in the Adelaide Zoo (Australia) and is thought to be at least 80 years old. This flamingo’s actual age is unclear, as he was already an adult when he arrived in Adelaide in 1933. He is still alive but, shockingly, was attacked by four teenagers almost exactly five years ago. It is surprising that a bird that weighs less than five pounds lives for more than 50 years in the wild. How long can lesser flamingos live in the wild? I wager that we are in for a surprise.

Anja Denker
Greater flamingos are found in parts of Africa, S Asia (coastal regions of Pakistan and India), and S Europe (including Spain, Albania, Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, Portugal, Italy and the Camargue region of France). Photographed here in Walvis Bay (Namibia). (Anja Denker)

Colin Jackson (Ringing Scheme of East Africa) confirmed that the ring recovered in February was one in a batch of 8,000 obtained from British Trust for Ornithology (BTO). Since 1962 only ten of the 8,000 rings attached to flamingo chicks have been recovered.

Karel Mauer
Greater flamingos “dancing” together in France. Love is in the air…(Karel Mauer)

Alan Root adds: “The most amazing record is of a lesser [flamingo] that ended up on a tiny lake in West Africa. Thousands of miles away with no possibilities of feeding anywhere west of the Queen Elizabeth Park in Uganda.”  This lesser flamingo was 6,197km away from Lake Magadi where life began.

Over 2 million lesser and greater flamingos feeding in Kenya’s Lake Nakuru. (David Shackelford / www.rockjumperbirding.com)

Lesser flamingos are considered Near Threatened and the last 50 years have not been good for the species. The message from this flamingo is clear. People were already concerned with the wellbeing of the flamingos in the early 1960s, so much so that they rescued hundreds of thousands of chicks from certain death, and that we need to do more the species.

David Shackelford/www.rockjumperbirding.com
Flamingoes dazzle the eyes and baffle the brain on Kenya’s Lake Nakuru (David Shackelford/www.rockjumperbirding.com)

Years later Brown and Root published a peer-reviewed manuscript in Ibis. Here they estimate that more than 850,000 chicks were hatched in Lake Magadi in 1962. That year heavy rains had flooded the birds’ traditional nesting ground on Lake Natron while fuelling algal growth. There was a lot of food around and nowhere to nest, so they started descending en masse on Lake Magadi. It was a tragic year of “life” taking risks for huge benefits and the last time flamingos used Lake Magadi for nesting.

The soda "anklets" that precipitated on the legs of thousands of lesser flamingo chicks on Lake Magadi in 1962, restricting their movements and making life impossible. (Alan Root)
The soda “anklets” that precipitated on the legs of thousands of lesser flamingo chicks on Lake Magadi in 1962, restricting their movements and making life impossible. (Alan Root)

The soda flats on Lake Magadi were exposed at the right time that year and the nest mounds were built in huge numbers. After hatching, more heavy rains flooded the nesting grounds with super-alkaline water that got so bad that salt bangles or “anklets” precipitated on the legs of thousands of flamingo chicks. The flamingos had been tricked into choosing Lake Magadi and had decided to tolerate the soda factory nearby that was reducing freshwater inflow.

The super-alkaline water in the lake drove the flamingos to nest along the shoreline. These are abandoned eggs due to hyena attacking the nesting ground. (Alan Root)
The super-alkaline water in the lake drove the flamingos to nest along the shoreline. These are abandoned eggs due to hyena attacking the nesting ground. (Alan Root)

As conditions in the center of the lake got worse, the mass of flamingo chicks started moving to less saline inlets near the soda factory. On the lakeshore chick mortality was extremely high due to predation by hyena, vulture, and jackal. This was made worse by the hard soda “anklets” restricting their movements and making life near impossible. These anklets grow to several inches in diameter and drowned the chicks that could not move to the edges.

The vast lesser flamingo breeding colony in front of the soda factory that casued many of the problems they experienced in 1962 - the last time they were seen breeding at Lake Magadi. (Alan Root)
The vast lesser flamingo breeding colony in front of the soda factory that casued many of the problems they experienced in 1962 – the last time they were seen breeding at Lake Magadi. (Alan Root)

In that fateful 1962 breeding season the adult flamingos would typically fly to Lake Natron to feed each day on what were usually their nesting grounds, only coming back to feed the chicks at dusk. This left hundreds of thousands of chicks fighting for their lives in manacles. A rescue mission became a necessity when thousands started dying.

John Williams and Governor Evelyn Baring removing the anklet from a rescued flamingo chick before attaching a leg ring. (Alan Honor)
John Williams and Governor Evelyn Baring removing the anklet from a rescued flamingo chick before attaching a leg ring. (Alan Root)

Over 27,000 flamingo chicks were rescued in an amazing story of community conservation. The Magadi Soda Company started pumping fresher water into part of the lake to create a safe haven of suitably alkaline water for the flamingos. The late Leslie Brown, Alan Root, British Army personnel, members of the East Africa Natural History Society, and even Evelyn Baring, the previous Governor of Kenya (1952-59) worked on the rescue effort at Lake Magadi. A teacher’s strike at the time meant that Magadi schoolchildren were available to help rescue the stranded flamingo chicks.

Here are the Magadi schoolchildren helping bring flamingo chicks to the 1962 team to remove the soda anklets... (Alan Root)
Here is the 1962 team removing soda anklets from a lesser flamingo chick… (Alan Root)

Alan Root sets the scene: “The kids easily caught the shackled chicks and brought them to about ten ‘hammerers’ who kept a rough tally of birds freed … a week of long hot days at about 400 chicks per person per day.”

Lesser flamingos flying to Lake Nakuru National park in Kenya to join massive feeding flocks. (Adam Riley /  www.rockjumperbirding.com)
Lesser flamingos flying to Lake Nakuru National park in Kenya to join massive feeding flocks. (Adam Riley / www.rockjumperbirding.com)

Another 200,000 were saved by driving them each day away from the super-alkaline water and keeping them near the soda factory. As long-lived birds,the flamingos remembered this event and never went back to Magadi to nest. Pollution and environmental damage from the soda factory has ruined the lake.

Clive Prior
Pink flamingos dazzle the eyes in Kenya at places like Lake Nakuru…(Clive Prior)

Mr. Paul Matiku, the Executive Director of Nature Kenya, points out that: “Soda ash mining has been going on at Lake Magadi for over 100 years and flamingos have not attempted to breed there over the last 50 years.”

The flamingo that died in February was among the last to hatch at Lake Magadi. That fateful summer in 1962 was the last time the flamingos used the lake. Changes in salinity and water level, accumulation of pesticides, more and more wastewater, and mechanical disturbance to the lake surface have made the site unsuitable for flamingos. Soda mining also does not allow a hard crust to form in the nesting grounds, causing the lesser flamingo chicks to become stuck in the hard soda. Flamingos need a regular receding flood to construct nesting mounds, and mining disturbs this natural cycle.

Mr. Matiku also points out that: “Soda ash mining at Lake Magadi has left local communities disillusioned with little to show for the 100 years of mining. The environment has been damaged and fresh water nearly depleted.”

 

(Rakesh Dhareshwar)
Feeding flamingos are swarmed by a multitude of shorebirds in the Mumbai mangroves near Mumbai (India). (Rakesh Dhareshwar)

Up to 2.5 million lesser flamingos, representing more than three-quarters of the global population, frequent highly alkaline lakes in Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia. Lake Nakuru and Lake Bogoria are considered the most important feeding sites. Both lakes are now considered harmful to lesser flamingos due to heavy metal poisoning, the accumulation of pesticides (e.g. DDT), and significant declines in algal growth.

Lesser flamingo taking off looks like a giraffe trying to fly... (Girish Ketkar)
Lesser flamingo taking off looks like a giraffe trying to fly… (Girish Ketkar)

Lake Natron (Tanzania) is the primary breeding site for all East African lesser flamingos. Most of their eggs are now in one basket… Proposals for a multi-purpose dam on the Ewaso Ngiro River, which represents 45% of the lake’s catchment area, and a soda ash extraction factory threaten this important breeding ground. The Tanzanians need to learn from what happened to the Kenyans at nearby Lake Magadi. The discovery of this leg ring is a message from the past, a warning we must listen to now. Flamingos have captured the imaginations of people around the world. They are symbols of grace and beauty. The message from this 50-year-old flamingo is that we risk losing these wonderful pink flamingos within the next 50 years if we do not accommodate them. A simple dam and another soda extraction factory could very well be the end of the species.

We hope to see flocks of wild lesser flamingos flying up and down the Great Rift Valley in 50 years time… (Girish Ketkar)

 

Special thanks to Pat Morant, Colin Jackson, Alan Root and Kenya Birds for your dedication to this conservation story.

 

logo-vectorPlease join the Wild Bird Trust page on Facebook or follow us on Twitter to receive all wild bird photo updates and news from our research and conservation projects in the field. Submit your own photos and become part of this important public awareness campaign to bring the magic of wild birds to the world. Prepare to be blown away every week… The Wild Bird Trust was founded in South Africa in August 2009 with the primary objective of keeping birds safe in the wild. The trust aims to encourage the use of flagship endangered bird species as “ecosystem ambassadors” in their indigenous habitat. The trust focusses on linking ordinary people with conservation action in the field through innovative marketing campaigns and brand development. Saving Africa’s birds is going to take a determined effort from all of us.

 

See last week “Top 25 Wild Bird Photographs of the Week #50″: 

Comments

  1. Maria-Luisa Amaro
    Johannesburg, South Africa
    October 29, 2013, 3:35 am

    Greedy, ignorant and insensitive people are destroying the natural world! How is it possible for human beings to ignore such beautiful birds and the slow horrific death that they suffer! There are few sights more awe inspiring than a flock of flamingos flying past!

  2. ben wilhelmi
    Arusha, Tanzania
    October 28, 2013, 9:30 am

    excellent article and pictures. I overfly lake Natron a few times a month and never miss a chance to marvel at this stunning location. Unfortunately I also hardly avoid thinking of that awful plan for an ash factory…

  3. SIR
    October 27, 2013, 12:47 pm

    KRÁSNÉ!!!! OBRÁZKY SUPER!!!!!

  4. Nicky Ross
    Stanford, Western Cape
    October 27, 2013, 11:38 am

    What an amazing report, one can’t believe that birds could be living for such a long time. Fantastic photos too.

  5. Peg Cagle
    Ohio
    October 27, 2013, 10:23 am

    Oh my, what a miraculous tale of discovery and evacuation.

    Yet another environmental warning.

  6. Jill Mortimer
    Somerset West, Western Cape, South Africa.
    October 27, 2013, 10:03 am

    What a story! Here we are fortunate enough to have a few hundred Lesser Flamingos on a permanent vlei in our town.
    This is the first time that the Lesser have been seen on this particular piece of water, although we often have Greater Flamingos. We also have them on other stretches of water throughout South Africa.

  7. Philip Engelen
    South Africa
    October 27, 2013, 7:13 am

    Hart warming story,has any work been done on the Flamingo’s that lve in Hyde Park London.

  8. Yvonne Pietersen
    Johannesburg
    October 26, 2013, 7:24 am

    Greedy people by far outweigh God’s loyal custodians of all living creatures, it seems we don’t stand a chance in correcting the evils of Africa. No one seems to understand that when they have destroyed all wildlife they will also die. No future for our troubled continent