Why Are Flamingos Pink?

Hint: It all comes down to diet.

Pink big birds Greater Flamingos, Phoenicopterus ruber, in the water, Camargue, France. Flamingos cleaning feathers. Wildlife animal scene from nature.Ondrej Prosicky/Shutterstock

Flamingos are so famous for their color that they’ve even inspired their own hot pink lawn ornament. So they must be born rosy, right?

Nope. It turns out that flamingos are not naturally pink. The lanky-limbed birds are actually born with light gray feathers. Pink is not in their DNA. Flamingos are just one of 12 majestic birds found in nature.

So what causes the birds to turn pink? Well, their favorite things to eat in the wild are brine shrimp, larvae, and blue-green algae. All three contain compounds called carotenoids, or yellow, red, or orange pigments. When these foods make their way into a flamingo’s digestive tract, enzymes break the carotenoids down into pink and orange molecules. Those molecules are absorbed by fats in the liver and are eventually deposited into flamingo’s skin, feathers, beak, and legs. Over time on this diet, a flamingo’s feathers will gradually turn from gray to a more vibrant hue.

Of course, flamingo feathers range in color from white to many different shades of pink to orange and red. The color a flamingo’s feathers turns depends on where they’re located and what they’re eating. For example, the pink feathers of some flamingos living in zoos started to fade until zookeepers started feeding the birds a synthetic version of the pink dye. Now that you know what gives flamingos their distinctive color, find out 23 “facts” about animals you have all wrong.

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Jen McCaffery
Jen McCaffery is an associate editor for Reader’s Digest. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Prevention, Rhode Island Monthly, and other publications and websites. When she’s not writing or editing, she’s growing veggies or trying to figure out the way home from assorted trails.