Dear Bird Folks,
Maybe you can answer this question for us. Is it true that flamingos obtain their pink color by eating shrimp? We have been discussing this question for over a week now and thought it was time we asked for help.
-Julie and Marianne, MRI-CCH, Hyannis, MA
I’ll help you Julie and Marianne,
But first you have to help me. What in the world is “MRI-CCH”? Is MRI-CCH one of those up-and-coming internet companies that everybody is talking about? Or is MRI-CCH that new sorority house that has been having all of those parties? Are you two cheerleaders? You are aren’t you? I knew it.
I’m with you guys, I mean ladies. That flamingo/shrimp thing has always been intriguing to me too. I’ve been hearing that story for years and it has never made any sense. Why would the food that a creature eats somehow end up coloring it’s feathers or skin? If that were true then robins would be worm colored and the people from Wisconsin would a have some kind of weird cheese complexion. Heck, based on that theory, from the amount of chocolate that I eat, I should look like the captain of the Jamaican Bobsled Team, which unfortunately for me, I don’t.
If you buy into the theory that you are what you eat and that eating pink shrimp turns birds pink, this next part will give you something else to think about. Shrimp aren’t even pink. Oh sure, they look pink after they have been cooked, but before that they are a hideous mucous gray color. With the exception of the wealthy ones that live in South Beach, Florida, very few flamingos cook their food. They all eat it raw and gray. Therefore, the pink feathers of the flamingo have nothing to do with eating shrimp. Right? Of course that’s not right. That would be way too simple.
There is, indeed, a relationship between a flamingo’s color and its shrimp diet, yet they don’t eat the same shrimp that we do. Flamingos have no use for those headless things that we hang off the side of a cocktail glass. They save those shrimp for Bubba Gump. Flamingos obtain their food by straining tiny aquatic creatures through their odd-shaped bills. They aren’t interested in the tubby shrimp many of us are so fond of. They only eat shrimpy shrimp.
So if the shrimp are tiny and gray, where does the pink come from? Well, it somehow comes from the shrimp, as well as much of the other food the flamingos eat. I won’t get into too much detail on the dynamics of it all, because if I did you would be bored and I wouldn’t understand it. The bulk of a flamingo’s diet is small insects, larvae, mollusks, blue-green algae and tiny shrimp. Many of these minute creatures have a high concentration of “carotenoid pigments”. It is these carotenoid pigments that are responsible for the flamingo’s coloring. Flamingos are not alone here. Other birds, including the Roseate Spoonbill, have a similar diet with similar results.
Even seed eating birds are affected by carotenoids, which are also found in vegetable matter. We’ve all seen some male House Finches that are brighter red than others. There are studies that suggest the finch’s plumage will vary depending the amount of carotenoids in the food that is eaten. What I find interesting is not that flamingos are pink, but how they have been able to survive all these years. When you think about it, pink is not a real good color choice for a bird that feeds out in the open. It’s hard to hide from predators while standing in the open wearing pink. But amazingly, it works for them. And what is even more amazing, the flamingos’ odd camouflage has been copied, by of all things, the British military. For years, many British Jeeps and Land Rovers that were sent off to desert warfare were painted pink, and I’m not kidding. Why pink Jeeps? You’ll have to ask the Brits that one, but I’d bet the folks from Monty Python had something to do with it.
There you go Julie and Marianne, the truth is out. It is their diet, which includes tiny shrimp, that has much to do with the color of flamingos. You can share the news with all of your sorority sisters at MRI-CCH. You should also tell them that the flamingo’s pink color has served them well. Archeologists have found flamingo fossils that date back millions of years. Strangely, none of the fossils were found out on the mud flats where the birds feed. Every one was found on the lawn in front of an ancient cave. Researchers feel that the pink birds were probably placed there by some wise-guy caveman who wanted to annoy the guy in the next cave.