Green Pages

Flamingo Flamboyance

The relationship between the salt industry and the American flamingo.

By Skylar Wuelfing, Waterfront Assistant, The School for Field Studies Center for Marine Resource Studies

Looking out across the salt flats of the Turks & Caicos Islands (TCI), one can often spot a flamboyance (or large group) of brightly colored birds known as American flamingoes (Phoenicopterus ruber). These fluorescent pink birds can be seen flocking around the Islands and are a popular attraction in the Caribbean, a frequented breeding and feeding ground. Although they can be sighted on eight of the islands that make up the Archipelago, flamingoes are most often seen on Providenciales, North Caicos and South Caicos due to these islands being more highly populated, with more people actively looking for them.

Flamingoes like to nest in Salinas (large flat pools historically used for salt production), as the salt-encrusted, damp mud is inaccessible to flamingo predators such as cats and birds.

While there are six species of flamingoes around the world, the only species found in the TCI is the American flamingo (also known as the Caribbean or West Indian flamingo). They are found throughout Caribbean due to the ideal conditions for nesting grounds on various islands. Flamingoes like to nest in salinas (large flat pools historically used for salt production), as the salt-encrusted, damp mud is inaccessible to flamingo predators such as cats and birds. It is currently estimated that there are 260,000–330,000 mature American flamingoes in the Caribbean, making it a species of least concern on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list, a scale that rates the level of endangerment of species.

This flamboyance of flamingoes is gathering near the Boiling Hole on South Caicos. As the tides bring in water, they also bring brine shrimp which are one of the flamingoes’ main prey.

Salinas can be found on three islands within the Turks & Caicos: Grand Turk, Salt Cay, and South Caicos.On South Caicos, the salinas cover approximately 22% of the island (455 acres), whereas they only cover 5% of Grand Turk and 7% of Salt Cay. Historically in the TCI, salinas were used for salt production from the mid 1700s into the 1900s. Total salt exports reached around 140 million pounds annually, and across the three islands 800 acres of salinas were utilized for production.

A unique feature of the salt industry on South Caicos is the Boiling Hole, a historically significant site and a unique tourist attraction. Because it is comprised of a subterranean cave system that is connected to the ocean, it is periodically refreshed by the tide. As the tides bring in water, they also bring brine shrimp which are one of the flamingoes’ main prey. 

Flamingoes tend to forage and breed in shallow bodies of high saline environments consisting of a mix of saline (sea water), brackish (a mix of sea water and fresh water), and fresh water. Flamingoes prefer habitat types with naturally high salinity as their prey (gastropods, crustaceans, brine shrimp, and small insects) are more abundant under high salinity conditions. In addition, the salt-encrusted, damp mud allows for an ideal location to build a nest as it provides the perfect conditions for egg incubation.

Because flamingoes desire these very specific environments, they are particularly vulnerable to human disturbance in the Caribbean due to habitat destruction and pollution. For instance, through the ups and downs of the salt industry, populations of organisms residing in the salinas fluctuated due to the uncontrolled changes in the levels of salinity. Research has shown that these salinity fluctuations affect flamingo behavior by changing the population density of their food supply, which can cause them to migrate away from or return to the TCI less frequently.

As the salt industry grew to meet global demand (becoming a world-wide commodity), the influx of people and machines harvesting the salt created habitat changes in the salinas that the flamingoes occupy, thus causing them to frequent the Islands less often. Despite the massive amounts of salt being produced and exported, the TCI’s salt production entered a decline in the late 1960s. Due to the small scale of production and a lack of both funds and infrastructure, the Islands could no longer keep up with the salt demand.

As the salt industry declined, the flamingoes had all they needed for survival without the disturbance of humans, which enabled them to slowly return. Researchers found that in the late 1970s — right after the decline of the salt industry — the American flamingo population consisted of approximately 29,773 mature individuals within the Turks & Caicos Islands.

Flamingoes are one of the most charismatic bird species and a symbol for the conservation of tropical ecosystems. This is often due to their fluorescent pink coloring, which stems from their diets of algae, insects, aquatic invertebrates, and small fishes. The algae contains beta carotene, an organic chemical that contains a reddish-orange pigment. This pigment, along with the brine shrimp, are what turn the flamingoes’ feathers pink. As flamingoes trigger an influx in tourism, many of their foraging and breeding grounds have been deemed reserves or sanctuaries. As such, the popularity of the American flamingo indirectly protects many other species that frequent or reside in their coastal habitat such as molluscs (snails, mussels, or slugs), crustaceans (crabs or shrimps), smaller birds (shorebirds), and chironomids (small insects).

While flamingo habitat in the TCI is currently mostly undisturbed, the country is beginning to experience an increase in tourism. (Tourism is the main source of revenue for many Caribbean islands and their local communities.) Yet tourism is a major potential threat for many local species, not just the American flamingo. While weather, pollution, and salt production are key reasons for population declines in many species, the threat that seems to cause the most damage is the land development that comes with tourism. This will not only affect the flamingoes but also all the organisms and plants that thrive in and around the salinas. 

Because of the increasing potential for disturbance, there is a need for conservation of flamingo habitat and the species they associate with. Many places around the Caribbean have already begun flamingo conservation initiatives. The Caribbean Alliance for Flamingo Research and Conservation (CAFRC) was established in 2007 to ensure the protection and conservation of the flamingo species. This alliance is similar to the Caribbean Flamingo Network, and both organizations aim to promote the study of the American flamingo and monitor flamingo populations. They have also been working on establishing areas of protection for the flamboyances of flamingoes based on site fidelity.

It is imperative that conservation efforts and future research are continued so that we may protect the American flamingoes that live throughout the Caribbean. With tourism increasing steadily, there is a growing need for conservation efforts and public awareness.

Along with these efforts, tourists can help to protect flamingoes in various ways. By staying on designated paths/roads in the salinas and refraining from littering or feeding the wildlife, tourists will ensure that they don’t damage feeding areas or tread on a flamingo nest. 

By being an eco-friendly tourist, we can help to protect these iconic pink creatures so that future generations can witness their beauty and grace. When you visit the Islands, make sure you have plenty of sunscreen and a decent pair of walking shoes so that you can have a flamingood time while visiting the flamboyances that can be found in the salinas of the Turks & Caicos!

To learn more about the The School for Field Studies’ projects on South Caicos, go to http://www.fieldstudies.org/tci.



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Marta Morton spent an hour filming a “flamboyance” of flamingos last September at aptly-named Flamingo Lake in Providenciales. For more of Marta’s beautiful images of the TCI, visit www.harbourclubvillas.com.

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