The Flamboyant Feelings Of Flamingos

May 17th, 2023
The Flamboyant Feelings Of Flamingos

It’s forty-something years ago. I’m half stood-up in the back seat of a car, peering forwards, trying to see. No, I won’t sit down, Dad. I want to see.

Outside the car, dusk is falling over Cyprus after a cloudless day. Every colour of the spectrum seems to be hanging in the air in soft folds laddering up to the deepening blue vault of the incoming night. But there’s still a little sunlight - and…over there? Is that them?

Ahead of us, the lake shores are lined with a shifting pink flamboyance.

This isn’t me being poetic. Get enough flamingos together - and that’s not hard, since they’re an intensely social creature - and the collective noun for them becomes “flamboyance”. A delightful name for a delightful bird, with their richly pink feathers layered in a showy, extravagant way. 

At this time of day and this time of year, the salt lakes of Cyprus are heaving with them - thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, like a pink mist that lingers until the spring. (If you’re taking Wheel & Anchor’s month-long Liveaway in Cyprus early next year, you’ll be in time to see them too - and I’ll be envious, because they’re a stunningly beautiful sight.)

The beautiful salt lake in Larnaca, Cyprus.

The beautiful salt lake in Larnaca, Cyprus.

That view is what I’m looking for right now - as I always do, because this is one of the moments I most look forward to on these road trips. 

Soon I’ll be able to see the beautiful dome and tower of Larnaca’s Hala Sultan Tekke (mosque), which everyone refers to as “The Tekke”. It’s a sign the trip’s almost over and we’ve made it across the island to the third-biggest city in Cyprus. But first, the flamingos. 

And there’s always a question mark in the air at this point. It wouldn’t be the first time we’ve driven past and they’d been absent. Sometimes that’s down to the time of year: you only see them in Cyprus in the winter, as they descend on its salty lakes to stuff themselves silly with food before their long migratory haul down into Africa. (Flamingos aren’t normally migratory birds as such - it’s this bounty of food that brings them here, namely: ostracods (seed shrimp), Branchinella spinosa (fairy shrimp), and Artemia salina, a type of brine shrimp.)

But sometimes we’re just unlucky. Perhaps they’ve all chosen another Cyprus wetland, since Larnaca alone has another three, and Limassol’s to the west is the largest inland body of water on the whole island. 

Limassol, Cyprus

Limassol, Cyprus

And yes, “wetland” - which is a surprising word to encounter somewhere as year-round-hot and dry as Cyprus, and one that conjures up boggy conditions and wildly unkempt greenery, nothing like the island’s barren, salt-crusted lakes. As legend has it, Larnaca lake’s saltiness comes from Saint Lazarus (yes, that Lazarus, to whom a nearby church is dedicated) who requested food and drink from an old woman. She refused, claiming her vines had dried up, to which Lazarus (presumably in a fit of pique) replied ‘may your vines be dry and be a salt lake forever more’. 

More scientifically, it’s probably down to geology. Once these lakes were a huge lagoon that served as a port around the second millennium BCE, turning nearby Larnaca (then called Kition) into one of the Mediterranean’s most strategically important trading posts - the chief export goods being, you guessed it, salt. But as the seawater evaporated away, it left a thickening clot of salt, and over the centuries, the lagoon became landlocked (or salt-locked), only replenished by rain and seawater leaching through the porous rock in a way that dumped even more salt into this now-lake.

The way that flamingos deal with all this salt in their diet is a biological marvel: they filter it using specialized glands in their head, and the excess salt drains out of their nasal cavities. In essence: they blow it out their noses. This allows them to hoover up vast quantities of brine shrimp, by feeding with their heads tipped upside-down. It’s quite the sight. 

(And if that wasn’t impressive enough, they have skin and scales on their legs and mouths tough enough to prevent burns from otherwise scalding temperatures, letting them drink freshwater from hot springs and geysers. Flamingos may look fragile on their exaggeratedly spindly legs, but they’re built for survival in the most surprising ways.)

As for the vivid colour in its plumage, here’s Ibrahim Sawal for New Scientist:

“The reason why flamingos [around the world] are pink is down to their diet of algae, shrimps and crustaceans. The wetland habitats they call home are packed with blue-green algae, which despite their name are actually red or orange in colour due to a chemical known as beta carotene. This chemical has a red-orange pigment in it known as carotenoid, which is also found in carrots, sweet potatoes and spinach.

Once eaten, enzymes in the flamingo’s digestive system break down the beta carotene and the red-orange pigments are absorbed by the fat in its liver. These fats are then deposited in the flamingo’s feathers and skin as it grows. As their diet is almost exclusively from sources rich in beta carotene, flamingos gradually become pink.”

Flamingos in the salt lake in Larnaca, Cyprus.

Flamingos in the salt lake in Larnaca, Cyprus.

As for their famous sociability, it might be down to habits learned from finding protection in numbers, combined with a tendency for “sychronised nesting” that helps them breed and raise their chicks with the help of their neighbours. There’s just a lot going on with flamingos, and it’s all impressively smart.

But if you’re a human - say, one excitedly peering over your dad’s shoulder as he finishes a long, long drive to the Larnaca hotel your family is staying in tonight - it’s maybe just about how flamingos make you feel. For me back then, they felt like rare the-whole-family-together time, a bit of escapism from the day to day of my father’s busy job as an aircraft engineer in the British Air Force, stationed in Cyprus. It also felt like seeing the island I too rarely saw, outside the Forces enclave we lived in - a glimpse of the real Cyprus. 

But maybe it was a sight that said something beyond words. Maybe it’s just that a horizon full of flamingos is a gorgeous thing to look at, and maybe that’s a thing everyone should have the chance to experience. 

Just check out Alan Taylor’s curated collection of flamboyances here, at The Atlantic

Let those incredible images fill your mind.. What would that feel like if you were actually there in person? Maybe you could go see for yourself.

Join Wheel & Anchor in March of next year to explore the cultural crossroads of the Mediterranean: Cyprus. A popular sun destination for Europeans, this gem is less-visited by Canadian travellers. Come with us to discover its fascinating history and outstanding cuisine with influences from the Greeks, Turks, Arabs, and more. Click here for the details.

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