Flamingos Wear Makeup, Pinking Up Their Feathers For Extra Sex Appeal

While some birds hide in feathered camouflage to escape unwelcome attention, others dazzle in bright plumages designed to attract a large number of onlookers, especially during mating season. 

Flamingos, renowned pink (and furious) birds that stand loud and proud beneath the scorching heat, fit this description. The sun, on the other hand, can fade their color over time as it bleaches them out. 

According to new study, larger flamingos have developed a form of “makeup” to counteract the fading effect by rubbing fluids from glands behind their buttocks onto their neck feathers. Talk about putting yourself through hell for your craft.

The study looked at a group of greater flamingos (Phoenicopterus roseus) from the Camargue in southern France, and published in the journal Ecology and Evolution. They wanted to see if these secretions were actually behaving as flamingo “makeup” by observing what occurred to feathers that not given the booty-gland treatment.

The flamingos in the research all had one thing in common: they were all deceased, having died in February 2012 due to a cold spell. Their gorgeous plumage no longer required, their contribution to evolutionary science allowed researchers to examine their feathers under a range of settings to discover how they changed their look.

The pinky-red hue of flamingos comes from carotenoids, a natural pigment abundant in the bird’s diet of brine shrimp and algae. They use this overabundance of carotenoids in a variety of ways, including excreting a secretion (which we will refer to as a “dye” from now on) from the uropygial gland, which is located at the butt end.

For an aesthetic boost, the dye can collected on a flamingo’s beak and cheeks and distributed throughout its feathers. During the flamingo-mating season, color matters a lot, with birds with the brightest feathers pairing earlier and more effectively than their paler counterparts do. They examined if the sun really did bleach the feathers by taking five to ten feathers from the deceased birds’ necks and cutting away their “dye” secreting uropygial glands. They threw many feathers on the roof while keeping others in the dark for 40 days to see how their color had altered.

The feathers with the largest concentration of carotenoids on their surface or interior preserved their color the best, according to the researchers. This would seem to imply that birds who keep their feathers in tip-top shape with a liberal application of booty gland dye are more likely to preserve their brilliant color, which might assist them out during mating season.

“These findings show that exposure to sunshine linked to the fading of feather color implying that individuals should apply cosmetics on a frequent basis to more colorful,” the study’s authors stated. “These findings further support the theory that these birds employ aesthetic coloring as a plumage color signal amplifier. “This discovery is congruent with the observation that more colorful people apply cosmetics to their feathers more frequently than less colorful people, implying that colorful people need to apply makeup on a regular basis to stay vibrant.”