Birding: The Pink Ballerinas

The name flamingo comes from Portuguese or Spanish word flamengo meaning flame (colored). The collective noun for a large flock of Flamingos is a flamboyance, that aptly describes the flock

Birding: The Pink Ballerinas
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(Retd) Lt General UK Sharma

March is that time of the year when creeks around Mumbai are teeming with the beautiful pink birds, the flamingos. They appear in thousands at places like Sowri mudflats, the Thane Creek and at Bhandup Pumping Station. They migrate from their breeding places in Gujarat and flock the eastern shorelines of Mumbai over more than 20 km.

But if you couldn’t afford to go to Mumbai just to see them, you could see them in NCR of Delhi and elsewhere, though in much smaller numbers. Mumbai is not the only place to see these tall, graceful pink birds.

Though the numbers are small, Okhla Bird Sanctuary at the border of Delhi and UP, as well as Najafgarh Jheel in Southwest at the border of Delhi and Haryana have been regularly playing host to Greater Flamingos for the last few years. Birding enthusiasts have been flocking to these sites to look at these marvelous birds that fly in from the Middle East and Southern Europe to grace our water bodies for a few months before the heat and dust of India send them back north. In that sense, they are truly nomadic. But are they gregarious! They fly half across the world in large flocks and continue the circle of life.

There are six different species of Flamingos in the world, of which two prominent ones- the Lesser Flamingo (Phoenicopterus minor) and the Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus) regularly come to the Indian Subcontinent. Delhi is fortunate that the tallest and the most graceful Pink Ballerinas, the Greater Flamingos are winter visitors to the national capital. The predominant species that comes to Thol, Khijadiya and Nal Sarovar in Gujarat is Lesser Flamingo. Flamingo City in Rann of Kutch plays host to breeding Greater Flamingos.

Greater Flamingo is the largest of Flamingos, standing 125 to nearly 150 cm tall. It is often found standing on one pink leg, with the other leg tucked beneath the body. This posture is believed to save the bird a lot of energy. The bird has a long and slender neck and very long legs. Th head is pinkish white, with a prominent, black-tipped pinkish bill. The body is pinkish-white with crimson-pink upper wing coverts that are black on the underside. The immature birds are grayish white with a black-tipped grey bill and grey legs. These progressively turn pink with age.

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Greater Flamingos are powerful fliers. In flight the neck and the legs are fully extended. The bird feeds in shallow waters of wetlands and mudflats by immersing its head in water and keeping the bill inverted. The lower mandible is mobile and facilitates filter feeding. The diet consists of a kind of blue-green algae that grow in shallow brackish waters of lakes, mudflats and saltpans. It also feeds on water-borne insects, crustaceans and mollusks. The algae are believed to be rich in carotenoids that impart pink color to the bill, the body and the legs.

Flamingos are extremely social birds and very gregarious. The size of flocks may run into many thousands. They are also essentially monogamous. Their courtship displays are a treat to the eyes of the birders observing them. These consist of the pairs standing facing one another with necks extended upwards, accompanied by swaying of the heads and flapping of the wings. The courtship ritual is also filled with loud honking and grunting.

Both members of the pair help in building a nest in mudflats or sandbars, a raised mound. After copulation during the nest building, the female lays an egg that both partners defend. After the egg is hatched, both partners feed the chick with their crop milk. The chicks begin to move out of the nest in 7-12 days, and congregate in groups called micro crèches. After some time, the micro creches merge into creches with many hundreds to thousands of immature chicks that stay together to avoid predators. These immatures then grow into juveniles that begin feeding themselves and acquiring adult coloration. And thus begins a fresh circle of life for these majestic birds.

For birding enthusiasts, other places where one can spot Flamingos include Bhigwan in Maharashtra, Lake Pulicat in Andhra Pradesh, Jawai Dam in western Rajasthan, Harike Wetlands in Punjab, Ghana Bird Sanctuary in Bharatpur and wetlands around Chilka Lake in Odisha.

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