What do baby flamingos eat? (Do they drink milk?!)

Flamingos start out as grey fluffy chicks that in a matter of months grow real feathers that slowly turn pink! The diet that they eat is essential for their optimal development and for them to obtain their recognizable pink feather coat.

The first few weeks after hatching, baby flamingos eat ‘crop milk’ produced by their parents.

Yes, you heard it right! Flamingo parents can produce milk, called crop milk, for their babies.

They feed it to their young through their mouth until they are a couple of weeks old, where they start to mix in regular flamingo food like brine shrimp, plankton, and algae (mainly Spirulina platensis).  

Crop milk is indeed real milk that is produced by the lining of the crop – an organ located in the upper digestive tract of both parents from which the milk is regurgitated into the mouth of the baby flamingo.

Both the male and the female flamingo produce the hormone prolactin, which is the same hormone that stimulates milk production in humans! Meaning both mom and dad are able to produce milk for their babies.

This is fascinating because milk production was long thought to be reserved for lactating mammals.

The ‘crop milk’ of flamingoes is high in protein and fat, is stained red in color, and is initially liquid but later starts to turn into a semi-solid substance that resembles cottage cheese, but is made from predigested food eaten by the adult flamingoes.

Not long after the baby flamingoes have hatched, the parents start to mix in adult food items, which change the crop milk into more like porridge for sea birds!

At this stage the crop milk is not real milk as we know it from mammals, but rather ground up and liquefied foods that the adults eat and store in their crop. The crop milk of flamingoes is strongly red in color due to the foods that they eat.

How do baby flamingos eat?

Since their bills are not yet developed to filter crustaceans or algae out of the water, they must rely on their parents to feed them.

They drink the milk directly from the beak of their parents until they can stand on their own and feed in the salty water plains like the rest of the adult flamingos.

Both parent flamingos regurgitate ‘crop milk’ into the newborn’s mouth. They will do this for at least 4 to 6 weeks, at that point the chicklets will begin to be able to eat the same food as their parents.

Baby flamingo being fed by one of its parents.

When they get old enough, they eat like the flamingo adults by filtering the water (see video!), which is done by simply running their beak through the water to let the filter structures inside their mouth catch algae, plankton, and smaller animals.

How much do baby flamingos eat?

Flamingoes feed their babies from around 10ml of milk per day in the very begging up to around 100ml per day when the chicks are more than 1 month old.

With a calorie content of around 600kcal/100ml of milk, this will amount to a diet of around 60kcal a day to around 600kcal a day when the chicks are one month of age! This corresponds to the energy contained in 3 ounces (90g) of pure butter!

How fast do baby flamingos grow up?

Over the first week, the baby flamingos almost double in weight and they continue to grow at this rate for months after hatching.

Whereas a newborn baby flamingo weighs only around 2 – 3 ounces (50 – 90 grams), and it will keep increasing in weight over the first couple of months till they reach the adult weight of 4-8 lbs.

To grow at this pace, baby flamingos need to ingest approximately 10-15% of their body mass in crop milk every day!

After only three weeks baby flamingoes have gained an average of 11 ounces (around 300 grams) and before their first month is over they weigh more than a pound (450 grams)!

The weight gain over time (days) of three flamingo chicks. Figure from Fiorucci et al.

By the second month of their life, the juvenile flamingoes weigh around 20 times their birth weight at approximately 3 pounds! From here on, they only gain a few pounds before they reach the final weight of adulthood.

How do baby flamingos become pink?

Baby flamingos become pink from the food that they ingest. It starts with the crop milk they get from their parents, which is stained with the same pigment that makes up the color of their adult coat.

The adult flamingos get most of their pink color from the algae (mostly Spirulina platensis) that they eat, and some from the shrimp that also eat these algae.

Baby Flamingos growing up
Baby Flamingos growing up

These saltwater algae contain strong pigments such as carotenoids, zeaxanthines, and lutein, which end up in the milk of the adult flamingoes and eventually in the baby flamingos.

These algae are also eaten by certain brine shrimp that are preferred food items for adult flamingos.

These saltwater shrimp are also red, so it is often believed that this is the main source of the flamingos’ color, while in reality, they get the majority of their carotenoids from the algae.  

Algae and shrimp supplement the chicks with pinkish color until they can forage for themselves, but it can drain the pigment from the adults making their color look washed out.

The more they eat their native food items, the pinker they will end up being. But if kept in captivity or are not able to find proper food, they will stay grey or pale in their coloring even as adults.

What happens if flamingos do not eat shrimp?

Flamingos can still turn pink even if they do not eat shrimp! The brine shrimp often consumed by flamingos, contain a lot of carotene pigments so they do contribute to the color of the flamingos.

Brine shrimp get their pink coloring compounds from the algae they eat and flamingos can get their color by eating these algae directly instead of eating the shrimp.

However, it is much easier to obtain large amounts of the colorants by eating the shrimps as they have already eaten algae all their life to concentrate the red flamingo pigments in their body.

So when flamingos eat shrimp instead of algae, they obtain much larger portions of pigment (and other nutrients) than if they lived on a purely vegetarian diet, but they are not the only source of these pigments (but often the most abundant one…).

What foods turn baby flamingos pink?

Young flamingoes are turned pink mostly by drinking the red crop milk they are fed by their parents.

The pigment that makes crop milk red comes mostly from carotenes such as beta-carotene (the same compound that makes carrots orange), which is in their diet of brine shrimp, blue-green algae, crustaceans, and plankton.

The majority of the color comes from the Spirulina platensis algae shown below. These are very dark green in appearance, so how can they color flamingos pink?

Well, the green color of Spirulina is actually so strong that it shines through all the other pigments that these algae contain. In this way, you will not see the red colors with the naked eye!

This principle of dominating green is actually the same for the leaves of many trees – they only reveal their other (red, yellow, orange) colors in the fall when the green chlorophyll is withdrawn by the three to conserve it during winter!

It may seem strange, but these deep green algae (Spirulina platensis) give flamingos their pink color!

So when adult flamingos eat these algae, they absorb the green chlorophyll for nutrients, but the reddish carotenes survive and make it to their feathers! The same actually happens to some people, if they eat too many carrots – their skin turns orange!

But don’t do that – you’re not a flamingo…!

Anyways, you may say that baby flamingos eat the color secondarily from algae and shrimp through their parent’s milk where the color is concentrated in the crop milk by the parents to make it more nutritious to the baby flamingoes.

How long does it take for a baby flamingo to turn pink?

A baby flamingo will start to turn pink in a couple of months when their actual feathers grow out and will be fully colored by the time they reach maturity at 2 to 4 years of age.

If a flamingo has a poor diet, then their color will become washed out and they will stay grey into early adulthood.

A grey adult flamingo. Some flamingos never really turn pink if their diet lacks the algae and shrimp that contain the carotene compounds that give their plumage color.

If a flamingo lives in captivity, it may never be fed the right foods and therefore never turn pink at all!

Do baby flamingos have teeth?

No, baby flamingos don’t have teeth because adult flamingos don’t have teeth!

Instead, flamingos are filter feeders and use structures in their beak along with their tongue like a sieve to catch food and hair like structures called lamellae to filter out the mud and debris.

Their upper and lower beak is lined with a type of lamella, or ridges, that are able to trap small food items like algae and shrimp.

These structures may look like teeth, but they are actually soft and are not used to chew, but only used to filter.

Why is the beak of flamingos shaped like it is?

The beak of baby and adult flamingoes are curved downwards compared to most birds so that they can more easily filter the water without actually bending their head to drink it.

Flamings typically eat with their head in an upside down position – a position that would not allow retention and filtering of water with a normal beak!

The characteristically upside-down shaped beak of an adult flamingo. Babies have a similarly shaped beak.

This beak design simply let the water and mud run through their beak while letting the particles get stuck in their lamella so they can ingest their food items such as small animals and algae with their tongue.

Flamingos are essentially filter feeders – a feeding method that resembles crabs and clams more than the feeding behaviour of most other birds.

Other birds that look like flamingos, like storks and cranes, have significantly different (sharp, long and pointy) beak shapes because these birds hunt for animals rather than filtering out microorganisms like flamingos do.

If you are interested in other aspects of baby flamingos, I have written a post with 20 additional facts about baby flamingos that you can check out!

Flamingo color FAQs

Below I am going to answer some of the most common questions I get about flamingo colors.

Can flamingos be blue?

No. No proper evidence exist for the existence of blue adult flamingos. A photo manipulation created by random people on the internet, has rocked the web since 2009!

These people have used simple photo manipulation techniques, such as Photoshop, to create a blue flamingo, and then uploaded it to the internet.

In reality, flamingos are pink and pink flamingos cannot turn blue. However, they are born grey, which in the right light conditions may seem to have a slight blue tint, but this is far less than shown on some manipulated photos on the internet.

Are blue flamingos real (do they exist)?

No, blue flamingos do not exist! The hoax photo was created by photo manipulation.

But baby flamingos can sometimes have a slight blue tint to their feathers. However, people often report seeing photos of blue flamingos on the internet. But like everything else in this world, they are not always the way they are sometimes portrayed.

Flamingos are not born blue! They are actually born grey and get their pink color after they eat a special diet of algae and crustaceans found in the mud.

Why are flamingos blue?

Flamingos are not blue, but pink! Pink flamingos get their color from the carotenoid pigment, carotene, which they get from algae. The algae, in turn, get their color from carotenoids (like the beta carotene that makes carrots orange!). The algae then become food for the flamingos, which gives them their pink color.

Do flamingos poop pink?

Yes, pink flamingo poop is pink! Our flamingo friends digest algae, crustaceans, and other plants. These foods are rich in carotenoids, the same pigments that give flamingos their color. And some of that pigment ends up undigested in their poop!

Are rainbow flamingos real?

No, just as blue flamingos, rainbow flamingos also do not exist!

Are there black flamingos?

Yes, there are flamingos that are black. Although rare, these flamingos are called “black flamingos” and “dark flamingos”.

Can flamingos be different colors?

Yes, flamingos can be different colors. Although flamingos are best known for their bright pink color, flamingos can grey, white, light pink, somewhat yellow and black.

Is flamingo milk red?

Yes, because the parents eat the algae and shrimp that contain red pigments, these get concentrated in the crop milk (not real milk!) which turns dark red.

Do flamingos eat blood?

No. Flamingos do not eat blood although the crop milk fed to the chicks may look like blood. They are mostly herbivores and they eat algae, shrimps and plants.