Over at the National Audubon Society blog, Andrew Del-Colle recently highlighted a whacky piece of footage of an upturned swimming flamingo: tail-feathers hoisted, head and neck fully underwater, and long pink legs pumping up and down for forward propulsion.

We've all seen the classic feeding-flamingo pose: the gangly pink or rosy bird wades through a lake or lagoon with its head down and beak skimming the water as it strains out invertebrates, algae and other tiny morsels:

The Audubon video (unearthed on Shutterstock), meanwhile, depicts a less familiar manoeuvre, with the flamingo basically going all-out dabbling duck, actually paddling along in deeper water with its entire forequarters submerged.

For insight, Del-Colle tapped veteran birder Kenn Kaufman, who reckoned the bird in question was a greater flamingo – the world's biggest and most widely distributed, native to Africa and southern Eurasia – and reported he'd seen this very behaviour in the species before. He noted the borderline-goofy-looking routine serves as a means for the waterbird to expand its dining table.

"By swimming like this and up-ending, they can reach deeper than they could by wading," Kaufman told Del-Colle. "This approach isn't very common – usually they're feeding in shallower water, and just wading with their heads down – but it's one of their standard feeding behaviours."

In this particular case, we can't see the flamingo's beak in action, but it's superbly designed for the bird's filter-feeding way of life. Its curvature and asymmetry – unlike in most birds, the lower bill is bigger than the upper one – allow the flamingo to upside-down guzzle the underwater muck it stirs up with its feet. Sieving out minuscule munchies is made possible by mandibles that boast bristly structures called lamellae, combined with the pump action of the raspy tongue and the swivel work of the head.

That coarse, heavy-duty tongue the flamingo wields so effectively when foraging was, ironically enough, ranked a culinary delicacy of its own in Ancient Rome. Referring to a legendary Roman epicurean (and to the bird by its Greek-derived Latin name), Pliny the Elder claimed, "Apicius, the most riotous glutton and belly-god of his time, [was] the first who taught men that the tongue of the phoenicopterus was a most sweet and delicate piece of meat."

Maybe falling a little short of the belly-god label, we're going to pass on the flamingo tongue as main course. It serves a better purpose anyhow churning inside a flamingo beak – whether one sloshed through the shallows by a wader or plunged into the depths by a paddler.



Top header image: Pixabay