Q&A: Flamingo Flight Explained

For many, flamingos bring to mind flashy zoo birds or plastic yard ornaments. But these majestic birds hold a number of wonderful surprises. Read on to learn how these beautiful birds fly, where they go, and how they are doing.

American Flamingo. Photo by Sergey Uryadnikov/Shutterstock.
Flamingos Can Fly, Right?

Yes, flamingos can fly! Doubts about this are likely because flamingos in zoos typically have their flight feathers trimmed, leaving them incapable of flight (more about that below). Worldwide, there are six flamingo species, and all take to the air.

Chilean Flamingos in flight. Photo by Mike Parr.

Observing flamingos in flight can be a spectacular and beautiful experience. Why? These social birds often fly together over flat waters that reflect their regal coloring — quite a sight to behold.

Flamingos travel at approximately 35 miles per hour (mph) over short distances, but they can fly upwards of 40 mph during long-distance flights with supportive winds.

When flamingos fly, they hold their legs and necks out, often with their bills tipped upwards. During flight, they continuously beat their wings, taking advantage of prevailing winds when possible to save energy.

How High Can Flamingos Fly?

Flamingos have been observed flying at altitudes of almost 20,000 feet (in birds moving across sites in South America's Andes). How high flamingos fly is largely dependent on the direction and strength of the wind, as well as the birds' destination. When flamingos fly over the ocean, they tend to fly lower than they do when over ground.

Do Flamingos Migrate? How Far Can Flamingos Fly?
Greater Flamingos in "V" formation. This species occurs in Eurasia and Africa.
Photo by ananth-tp/Shutterstock.

Flamingos that breed in temperate areas migrate to warmer climates outside of breeding season. For example, the Andean Flamingo breeds in the high Andes and winters in lower altitudes along the Pacific coast. Flamingos can roam widely in search of wetlands to find food. The American Flamingo will travel upwards of 50 miles in search of sustenance.

Do Flamingos Fly in Groups?

Flamingos are often found in large flocks, with a single group called a flamboyance. They tend to fly in rows or “V” formations, which helps save energy. With each wing flap, flamingos send air backwards, helping to lift birds that follow.

Flamingos Are Big Birds; How Do They Take Off?

Flamingos take off by running on land or in shallow water while beating their wings. When they face strong winds, they can take off with a single wing beat.

Why Don't Flamingos Fly in Zoos?

Flamingos in captivity often have their flight feathers trimmed, or tendons or bones in their wings altered so that they cannot escape when kept in open ponds and other exhibits. (Alterations to flamingo tendons or bones are considered by many to be inhumane, but they are widely used because they are permanent.)

Do Flamingos Fly Often?

Yes, flamingos are frequent fliers. They usually molt their flight feathers over extended periods, and this ensures that they can always fly, but sometimes (especially in captivity) they do molt all of their flight feathers at once. When this happens, they are usually flightless for about three weeks while new feathers grow.

Are Flamingos in Trouble?

Three of the four flamingo species found in the Americas are in rapid decline. Puna and Chilean Flamingos are considered Near Threatened, while the Andean Flamingo is categorized as Vulnerable, according to the IUCN Red List. These birds suffer from habitat loss and degradation due to coastal development and mining.

Other threats that flamingos face include oil spills and other pollution, as well as collisions with powerlines hung near foraging or nesting locations. In addition, American Flamingos and their habitat in the Caribbean are vulnerable to sea-level rise and the threats to the birds and their habitat posed by climate-driven storms.

Puna or James's Flamingos. Photo by Curioso Photography/Shutterstock.
How Are Conservationists Helping Flamingos?

American Bird Conservancy and other conservation groups are helping flamingos in multiple locations.

ABC has partnered with Aves Argentina to create and expand a national park to protect the Laguna Mar Chiquita – a large salt lake in northern Argentina used by Chilean, Andean, and Puna Flamingos. The area is especially important to Chilean Flamingos, hosting up to a third of their entire population during some breeding seasons.

ABC has also supported the work of Asociación Ecosistemas Andinos (ECOAN), a Peruvian nonprofit, to conserve the Junín National Reserve in Peru, another Chilean Flamingo breeding ground.

Erica Sánchez Vázquez is ABC's Digital Advocacy Coordinator.