Lesser Flamingo feeding. (View large)
These birds are filter-feeders. They feed primarily on blue-green algae (-a misnomer as blue-green algae are cyanobacteria and not plants).
The Cyanobacteria can, when conditions are right, produce massive blooms which change the colour of some lake waters and produce a rich bacterial soup. The Lesser Flamingos harvest this by flexing the neck to turn the bill upside down; the distal part of the bill is immersed in the surface layer of the lake-water but the nostrils sit above the water surface. The bill is opened drawing in water which is then pumped out by tongue movement forcing the water through hair like structures called lamellae which create a "mesh-filter" along the inside of the mandibles. This feeding action occurs very rapidly enabling the flamingo to "process" large volumes of water from which significant amounts of nutrient-rich cyanobacteria can be filtered out.
Almost no other higher life forms can harvest this type of food and so flamingos occupy a niche almost devoid of competition. Cyanobacteria grow best in warm shallow mineral-rich waters exposed to intense sunlight. Such conditions are found in a few large lakes in Africa's Great Rift Valley -especially in Kenya's Lake Bogoria, Lake Nakuru and Lake Magadi and Tanzania's Lake Natron.
To breed successfully Lesser Flamingos need very specific conditions. They require extensive shallow soda-rich/saline water which can support large blooms of cyanobacteria -but also need immersed mud banks (lying just below the water surface) sitting well out into the lake beyond the reach of land based predators. In such sites they are able to construct raised conical mud nests that sit well above the water upon which the single egg can be laid. Currently only one Rift Valley lake satisfies all of these specific needs -Lake Natron in northern Tanzania. As a result this lake is the only regular breeding site for the Rift Valley's 2.5 million Lesser Flamingos (almost the entire World population).
Unfortunately the President of Tanzania has announced that he intends to allow the creation of a large soda ash harvesting plant at Lake Natron irrespective of any environmental objections. This action will probably see an end to the huge East African flamingo flocks and may even lead to the extinction of the Lesser Flamingo!
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