Flame-Feathered Dancers

BY AWAKE! WRITER IN KENYA

THOUSANDS of voices. The incessant, frenzied chatter resonates across the surface of the remote lake. Wading in the shimmering, emerald-green waters are thousands of pink birds. Above, the sky is filled with their graceful flight. Turning and wheeling above the water, they beat the air with their long, thin wings, revealing flashes of deep red. The swarm of bird life, awash with brilliant color, is breathtaking! It is arguably the greatest avian wonder on earth​—the pink flamingos of Africa’s Great Rift Valley.

Long-Legged Elegance

From early times the flamingo has been appreciated for its lovely, delicate stature. Its long-necked likeness was chiseled into stone and can be seen in Egyptian hieroglyphs. So unusual and admired was the bird’s appearance that the Egyptians revered it as the embodiment of the god Ra. The flamingo’s slender, arching neck and thin, graceful legs were featured in primitive cave drawings.

Today four species of flamingo can be found in areas of Africa, the Caribbean, Eurasia, and South America. The lesser flamingo is  the smallest of the species. It is beautifully colored, with deep-pink feathers and bright-red legs and feet. The greater flamingo is twice the size of the lesser flamingo and stands up to 55 inches tall. All flamingos share a common characteristic​—a bill that gently bends in the middle and curves downward, creating a form that is lovely to behold.

When taking to the air, the bird gracefully flaps its wings and races across the water on nimble legs, obtaining the momentum it needs to lift into the sky. With its long neck and head straight out in front and its legs trailing rigidly behind, it elegantly wings its way across the sky. An estimated four million flamingos inhabit Africa’s Great Rift Valley.

Delicate Bird, Rugged Environment

The vast number of flamingos that inhabit the Rift Valley thrive on a series of soda lakes that are indeed unique. The water is so chemically rich in sodium carbonates that it feels oily to the touch and slightly burns the skin. Temperatures around the Rift soda lakes can climb to as high as 150 degrees Fahrenheit [65 degrees Celsius]. The strong scent of sulfur and brine rises from the fizzy lake waters and hangs heavy in the hot air. Alkaline compounds and salts in the water are so concentrated that they crystallize and form crusty, white deposits along the shoreline.

Few creatures can live in such caustic water. Yet, some tiny creatures do survive there​—microscopic blue-green algae. The hot, tropical sun warms the alkaline waters, creating ideal conditions for the growth of algae in vast numbers. The algae are so concentrated that they turn the lake waters green. Like emeralds set in a fine necklace, this chain of soda lakes beautifully adorns the valleys and  mountains that run along the length of the Great Rift Valley.

It is remarkable that a delicate creature like the flamingo can exist in such rugged and hostile surroundings. Yet, the flamingo thrives here. Its spindly legs are resistant to the caustic waters, and its webbed feet prevent it from sinking into the soft, oozing mud. The lesser flamingo is uniquely equipped for life in this forbidding environment. Its beak contains tiny filaments that are able to siphon and strain out the microorganisms that are concentrated in the upper two to three inches [5 to 7 cm] of the water. When feeding, the flamingo holds its beak upside down, pointed backward, just below the surface. The flamingo’s pistonlike tongue draws water in and forces it out across the tiny filaments that filter out and retain the microscopic organisms.

Colorful Courtship Ceremonies

When the morning sun rises over the jade-green waters of the lake, it is as if a giant curtain were lifted. The golden light reveals a vast flock of flamingos glowing like flames of fire on the  lake surface. The birds are packed in tightly. With their necks extended upright, the displaying birds march in groups, tossing their beaks from side to side.

As platoons of birds march past one another in opposite directions, the sun reflects on the birds’ delicate feathers, forming a mosaic of contrasting shades of scarlet and pink. The birds bob and dance, spreading their wings wide to reveal the deep red of their wing feathers. Flaunting their vibrant colors, they run across the water and take to the air, only to land again and repeat the ritual. The flamingos are so densely packed that individual birds cannot take to flight but must wait until those on the edge of the flock take off first. Honking and babbling with excitement, they produce a clamor that is deafening.

Then suddenly, under the cover of darkness, the birds take to the air en masse and fly away. Moving in long lines or in V-formation, they fly hundreds of miles until they reach their destination​—a soda lake that is ideal for nesting and raising their young. Strangely, this migration is simultaneous with that of flamingos on the other Rift Valley soda lakes.

From Ugly to Beautiful

Flamingos choose to build their nests on lakes that are remote and inaccessible. This isolation is important, since the nesting colony is extremely sensitive. If disturbed, the parent birds may completely abandon their eggs and never return.

The nesting colony swarms with activity. With great excitement parent birds begin building. Bending their long necks, they scoop up mud, bird dung, and a few feathers to form a cone-shaped mound some 16 inches [40 cm] high. It is topped with a slight depression that holds the single egg away from the shallow, alkaline water. Soon hundreds of thousands of chicks begin to hatch. Parent birds fly in and out of the nesting site in vast numbers, busy with the exhausting work of feeding and caring for their begging chicks.

Then, when the chicks are old enough to walk, the parent birds suddenly leave their young behind and fly to another part of the lake, where the blue-green algae are richer and more abundant. Here, away from the demands of their chicks, they will be able to feed and replenish their energy. The huge brood of chicks is then gathered together into a nursery by a few remaining adult birds. Under the watchful care of these nursing adults, the noisy youngsters are herded across the salt flats until they are reunited with their parents. Amazingly, in all this confusion, the parent birds are able to recognize their individual chicks and continue caring for them.

The young chicks are awkward and bear little resemblance to their magnificent parents. Their young legs and necks are short, their beaks are straight, and their feathers are plain white in color. After some time their short legs begin to grow, their necks begin to lengthen and curve, and their beaks begin to turn down, forming the delicately angled shape that is unique to the flamingo. It will take some two to three years before the ungainly chick turns into a beautiful flame-feathered flamingo. It will then pair off with a mate and join the great pink flocks of flamingos that are such a delightful complement to the Rift Valley’s soda lakes.

The flamingo’s grace and beauty are an astonishing example of intelligent design. Observing this lovely creature in the wild delights our sense of sight and sound. But more than that, it heightens our appreciation and love for its wonderful Creator, Jehovah God.

[Picture on page 17]

Greater flamingos

[Picture on page 17]

Lesser flamingos

[Pictures on page 18]

The young chicks bear little resemblance to their magnificent parents