strange behaviors

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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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An Efflorescence of Flamingoes

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 23, 2011

American flamingo by J.J. Audubon

Natalie Angier on flamingoes, in today’s New York Times:

Now they paraded forward, now they all marched aft. Now they shot up their necks like periscopes and twisted their heads first left, then right. They flashed the black petticoats of their underfeathers in single- and double-winged salutes. They moonwalked on water, raised a spindled leg balletically, from dégagé position to arabesque. They honked like indignant Canada geese and rasped like didgeridoos.

She also explains how flamingoes feed and why they so often stand elegantly on one leg:

Wherever they alight, flamingos are filter feeders, the avian equivalent of baleen whales. They skate slowly through their chosen wetland, as stiff and pompous as Monty Python’s philosophers on a soccer field, treading through mud and water with their webbed feet, panning for brine shrimp, algae, insects, larvae, whatever the local microbios may be.

A flamingo submerges its head upside down, allowing its bent upper bill, with its curtain of comblike filaments, to serve as scoop and colander, all abetted by its formidable machine tool of a tongue.

“The tongue is like a piston,” said Matthew J. Anderson, an assistant professor of psychology at St. Joseph’s University who studies flamingos at the Philadelphia Zoo. “It moves back and forth rapidly, pumping water into the bill and then squirting it back out the sides.” And so the pumping and squirting continues, until the flamingo has managed to sieve together some nine ounces of food a day.

Given their large bodies and energy-intensive feeding style, flamingos do what they can to conserve energy. Dr. Anderson, his student Sarah Williams and their co-workers have published a series of papers arguing that flamingos stand on one leg for thermoregulatory reasons — to keep themselves warm.

“Just as we hug everything into the torso when we’re cold, so flamingos will hold a leg close to the body,” Dr. Anderson said. “They’re trying to diminish the surface area exposed to the elements.”

The researchers have shown that as temperatures drop, flamingo legs rise, and that flamingos standing in water strike the unipedal pose far more often than flamingos resting on warmer ground.

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