Nature's Mysteries: Why Do Flamingos Stand on One Leg?

Why Do Flamingos Stand On One Leg Nature's Mysteries
Jessica Macdonald

With their rosy plumage, elegant swan-like necks and impressive curved beaks, flamingos are undoubtedly some of Africa's most recognisable birds. There are six different species of flamingo globally, and two different species in Africa - the lesser flamingo, and the greater flamingo. Both African species vary quite dramatically in color from bright fuschia to almost white, depending on the levels of bacteria and beta-carotene in their diet. One distinctive feature never changes, though - and that's the flamingo's tendency to stand on one leg.

Many Different Theories

Over the years, scientists and laymen alike have put forward many theories in the hope of explaining this strange behaviour. Some hypothesised that the flamingos' balancing act helped them to reduce muscle strain and fatigue, by allowing one leg to rest whilst the other carried the full brunt of the bird's weight. Others thought that perhaps having only one leg on the ground meant that the flamingo would be able to take off quicker, therefore enabling it to more easily avoid potential predators.

In 2010, a team of scientists from New Zealand put forward the theory that standing on one leg was a symptom of drowsiness. They proposed that flamingos (like dolphins) could allow one half of their brain to sleep, while using the other half to consciously keep an eye out for predators and maintain their upright position. If this was the case, the flamingos could be subconsciously drawing one leg up as if to rest on the ground while the corresponding half of their brain slept.

A Method of Keeping Warm

However, the most widely accepted theory is one born of extensive studies carried out by comparative psychologists Matthew Anderson and Sarah Williams. The two scientists from Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia spent several months studying captive flamingos, and in the process discovered that it takes longer for a flamingo on one leg to take off than it would for a bird on two legs, effectively disproving that theory. In 2009, they announced their conclusion - that one-legged (or unipedal) standing has to do with heat conservation.

Flamingos are wading birds that spend the majority of their life at least partially immersed in water. They are filter feeders, using their sieve-like beaks to skim the lagoon floor for brine shrimp and algae. Even in tropical climates, this aquatic lifestyle exposes the birds to extensive heat loss. Therefore, to minimise the chill-factor of keeping their feet in water, the birds have learned to balance on one leg at a time. Anderson and Williams' theory is supported by the fact that flamingos on dry land tend to stand on two legs, reserving one-legged resting for their time in the water.

The Art of One-Legged Standing

Whatever the flamingo's motives may be, it is indisputable that standing on one leg is a talent. The birds can maintain this balancing act for hours at a time, even in exceptionally windy conditions. Originally, many scientists believed that the birds favored one leg over the other, in much the same way that a person is right or left-handed. But Anderson and Williams found that the birds showed no preference, often alternating their standing leg. This observation also supports their theory, as it would suggest that the birds swap legs in order to prevent either one from becoming too cold.

Where to See Wild Flamingos 

Whether they're standing on one leg, two legs or caught in mid-flight, seeing flamingos in the wild is a spectacle not to be missed. They are most impressive in large numbers, and the best place to see them in their thousands is Kenya's Rift Valley. Specifically, Lake Bogoria and Lake Nukuru are two of the world's most renowned flamingo breeding grounds. Elsewhere, the salt pans of Walvis Bay in Namibia support great flocks of both lesser and greater flamingo; as does Lake Chrissie in South Africa, and Lake Manyara in Tanzania.

This article was updated and re-written in part by Jessica Macdonald on October 20th 2016.