Prof­itable Won­ders James Le Fanu

The Oldie - - NEWS - james le fanu

Each of the 10,000 species of birds is ex­cep­tional in its own way, though some ap­par­ently are more ex­cep­tional than oth­ers.

The ‘Top Fifty’ of the ‘evo­lu­tion­ary most distinc­tive’, ac­cord­ing to Pro­fes­sor Wal­ter Jetz of Yale Univer­sity, writ­ing in the jour­nal Cur­rent Bi­ol­ogy, in­cludes the os­trich, the world’s fastest an­i­mal on two legs, with a cruis­ing speed of thirty mph.

Then there is the heav­i­est – and only flight­less – par­rot, the New Zealand Kakapo, that gets by, breed­ing only once ev­ery three years. The female se­lects her part­ner from a fash­ion pa­rade of po­ten­tial suit­ors.

From Venezuela comes the monog­a­mous, noc­tur­nal, cave-dwelling oil­bird that must, like the bat, rely on echolo­ca­tion to find its food in the dark. Its stores of rich body fat are highly prized as cook­ing oil (thus the name).

The flamingo must be the most distinc­tive of all. Though its in­stantly recog­nis­able long, slen­der neck, spindly legs and pink­ish-red plumage are so fa­mil­iar, its many phys­i­cal and be­havioural pe­cu­liar­i­ties are read­ily over­looked.

Those pe­cu­liar­i­ties are in­sep­a­ra­ble from, and de­ter­mined by, its habi­tat. This is among the harsh­est on earth for the East African lesser flamingo. It lives in the shal­low, evap­o­rated, in­tensely salty lakes of the Rift Val­ley, whose ‘vis­cous, slimy and un­be­liev­ably foul’

water brims with the blue-green al­gae on which it feeds.

Hence the long, spindly legs on which the flamingo wades through the soft mud. And, be­ing so high off the ground, hence too the ne­ces­sity for that long, slen­der neck that sweeps down, head flexed, on to the sur­face of the water.

Thus the flamingo feeds ‘up­side-down’ – a pe­cu­liar­ity in­deed, that en­tails a com­plete re­ver­sal of stan­dard beak anatomy: the up­per bill, rather than be­ing fixed and ca­pa­cious, is shal­low and mo­bile, ar­tic­u­lat­ing up­wards on to a fixed and ca­pa­cious (rather than shal­low and mo­bile) lower bill.

‘The flamingo’s flip-flop is com­plete and com­pre­hen­sive – in form and mo­tion,’ notes nat­u­ral­ist Stephen J Gould. ‘The shapes are over­turned, the sizes re­versed, the slot­ting in­verted, the but­tress­ing trans­posed.’

And the flamingo’s mode of feed­ing, too, is ‘sur­pass­ingly rare, unique amongst birds’, com­pa­ra­ble only to the fil­ter­ing mech­a­nisms of the gi­ant baleen whale. The pis­ton-like mo­tion of its mus­cu­lar tongue, pump­ing to and fro twenty times per sec­ond, sucks twenty gal­lons a day of that ‘slimy and un­be­liev­ably foul’ water into its mouth through a fine mesh of hair-lined teeth that ex­clude all but the mi­nus­cule al­gae that con­sti­tute its diet.

Those al­gae, too, are the source of that distinc­tive pink-red coloura­tion – rich in carotenoid chem­i­cals metabolised first in the flamingo’s liver, then con­cen­trated in the oily preen­ing gland near its tail.

Span­ish bi­ol­o­gist Juan Amat de­scribes ob­serv­ing how the flamingo, be­sides smooth­ing and tidy­ing its feath­ers, rubs its cheek against this gland, trans­fer­ring the pig­ment on to its neck and breast.

Pro­tected within its harsh habit from the at­ten­tion of preda­tors, the lesser flamingo flour­ishes, ag­gre­gat­ing in tens and hun­dreds of thou­sands to cre­ate the most as­ton­ish­ing spec­ta­cle in the or­nitho­log­i­cal world.

Apart from the colour of the scene and the awe-in­spir­ing vi­tal­ity of its seething, bustling life, the ob­server is struck by its in­ces­sant clam­our. When not rest­ing or feed­ing, they di­vert them­selves with a range of bizarre, rit­u­alised dis­plays – the ‘head-flag’ and ‘wing-salute’, the ‘twist­preen’, ‘hook­ing’ and ‘march­ing’.

‘They pack into a tight mass, stand­ing very up­right, the breast of one prac­ti­cally rest­ing on the back of the bird in front,’ writes flamingo en­thu­si­ast Mal­colm Ogilvie. ‘Then they set off at a fast run, abruptly re­vers­ing di­rec­tion ev­ery so of­ten. The over­all ef­fect is to pro­duce a darker pink mass of ‘march­ing’ birds, mov­ing to and fro within the gen­eral flock. All that can be seen from a dis­tance is a for­est of twin­kling red legs and madly twitch­ing heads, above a solid wall of pink bod­ies.’

And how pe­cu­liar is that?

What’s for din­ner? Rift Val­ley slime

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