Why are flamingos pink?

Ahhh, the majestic flamingo. A bird of beauty and grace, and a master of standing on one leg. Most of us have been familiar with flamingos since our early childhood, given the pink plumage that makes them stand out, propelling them to such levels of fame. It’s hard to complain about the aesthetic popularity of an animal that looks as regal as any swan or crane, but with a kicking pink color palette as well. However, it’s also fairly common to hear people asking why exactly it is that flamingos are pink. Is it a fashion statement? Are they made of cotton candy? Did they overapply their blush this morning? We just don’t know.

Photo: Unsplash.com

They’re not actually pink

Well, we do, actually. That’s why we’re writing this article. But you don’t, which is why you’re reading it – and why we’re going to tell you. Now brace yourselves, because we’re not sure that you’re ready for this reveal, but: flamingos aren’t actually pink. We know, we know, steady yourselves and listen up. Flamingos are actually born with grey feathers, not pink ones. At the start of their lives they look as grey and drab as any duck or swan chick – although with the added pazzaz of an excellent pair of thigh-high boots. Flamingo chicks don’t become pink until later in life, and they do so because of their diet.

Flamingo myths – it isn’t shrimp

If you asked why flamingos are pink when you were younger, you might have been met with the answer that it’s because the shrimp they eat are pink. While this isn’t the truth, it isn’t so far from the right answer as you might think. Flamingos are pink because of what they eat – and in part specifically because of the shrimp they eat – but such a simple explanation doesn’t really do it justice. The thing that makes a flamingo pink is a chemical called astaxanthin, a kind of carotenoid. Carotene is a naturally occurring pigment responsible for the color of different fruits, vegetables, and even animals, including, as the name might suggest, carrots!

Photo: Unsplash.com

Carotene-rich food

Generally, the color carotene imparts is in the red-yellow-orange range, and it’s from eating carotene-rich food that flamingos get their color. The diet of a flamingo generally consists of brine shrimp and blue-green algae, both replete in carotenoids. When a flamingo eats these, the enzymes in its stomach acid break down the carotenoids into a pigment that ends up deposited in their feathers and skin, turning them pink. This is why – aside from just looking great – very pink feathers are a sign of strength and vitality in a flamingo. A flamingo that is very pink has eaten a lot, which signals that it’s good at finding food, and a better choice for a mate. Flamingos that are malnourished, or eating food that isn’t rich in carotene, tend to end up with very pale pink or white feathers.

So there you have it. Flamingos get their vibrant pink from the carotenoids in the food they eat. It’s not just a fashion choice, although a flamingo would probably dominate any fashion week it went to. After all, a feathered coat is a little unethical, but not if it’s your own feathers. That’s an advantage that nobody can beat. Every day is a school day…