Australia was once full of flamingos
These iconic pink birds are more associated with Africa and the Americas, but they once also called Australia home.
Tim Low lives in a state of perpetual surprise at everything wild and alive. His response is to write searching books, Australian Geographic articles and this blog. His book Where Song Began (Penguin, 2014) recently became the first nature book ever to win the Australian Book Industry Award for best general non-fiction. Tim’s newest book is called The New Nature.
AUSTRALIA WAS ONCE A land graced by flamingos. For at least 20 million years the big pink birds fed on vast inland lakes, until a drying of the outback ended their reign, perhaps a million years ago.
The Lake Eyre region at one time had three species, more than Africa today. Australia has had at least six species altogether, including the greater flamingo – the main flamingo in Africa. Our museums have accumulated more of their fossils than of some regular Australian birds such as parrots. At some sites their remains lay near those of outback crocodiles, dolphins and lungfish.
Flamingos feed largely in saline waters on tiny crustaceans and diatoms. Unlike flamingos, these can endure savage droughts by surviving for years in dry lake beds as durable eggs, spores or cells. When flamingos exited the stage, the aquatic life in Australia’s salt lakes could prosper during the wet times without their largest enemy.
Currently the only flamingo residing Australia is ‘Chile’, a Chilean flamingo that arrived at Adelaide Zoo in the late 1970s. (Image: Adrian Mann / Zoos South Australia).
Flamingos are still regarded as Australian birds, for a very tenuous reason. In 1988 a greater flamingo dropped in on North Keeling Island, a remote Australian territory 2750km north-west of Perth, staying a couple of months. Greater flamingos are found in Asia and southern Europe as well as Africa and this one had wandered over from India or Sri Lanka. Flamingos are featured in some of Australia’s bird guides because, you never know, one may turn up again, not that anyone needs a book to recognise a flamingo. When Australia became too drought-prone for the last outback flamingos some of them may have escaped to Asia, which makes it possible that this wanderer had Australian ancestors.
A greater flamingo in Adelaide Zoo was acclaimed as the oldest flamingo on Earth, and one of the oldest birds on Earth, until it became so ill in 2014 it was euthanased. It came to the zoo from Cairo or Hamburg sometimes between 1919 and 1933, which means it lived at least 83 years.
Visit Adelaide Zoo while you can to see the only flamingo left in Australia, a Chilean flamingo known warmly as Chile. He is thought to have been imported in the late 1970s. For quarantine reasons flamingos are now forbidden imports, which means that Australia is destined to become a flamingo-free zone unless another pink nomad wanders over from Asia.