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Flamingo foul mouth

Lesser flamingos are tough.

These birds may look dorky with their long legs that bend backward at the knee, S-shaped long necks and beaks that are bent down, but they can live in one of the harshest environments in Africa — Lake Natron.

Lake Natron is extremely salty, the water has lots of alkali in it. There’s so much alkali in Lake Natron that it would burn your skin if you waded into the water, but it doesn’t bother the tough skin of the lesser flamingo.

They actually like the water because it grows a type of bacteria that the birds eat — called cyanobacteria. The birds’ livers take a chemical in the cyanobacteria and send it to their feathers, which turns them pink. The color will fade from feathers that fall out.

Lesser flamingos can also drink the salty water because they have a special gland that removes the salt.

Because the water is dangerous to other critters, the flamingos can safely build nests in the lake’s mud flats when the water drops, creating islands.

When flamingo chicks hatch, they have straight beaks and white feathers. As they grow older their beaks will bend down. When fully grown, the birds weigh between 3 and 8 pounds. Their wings can stretch 3 feet for lesser flamingos.

Although tough, the lesser flamingo is the smallest of its species. The greater flamingo has a wingspan of around 5 feet and stands about 5-feet tall.

Pink flamingos became famous after a U.S. plastic company began making fake flamingos in 1957. People stick the fake birds with their metal legs in their yards — or someone else’s — for fun, or to add color.

— Brett French, french@billingsgazette.com

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