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Across the planet, the phenomenon of animal migrations is well known. Olive Ridley sea turtles, Amur falcons, even dragonflies and tiny zooplankton undertake journeys looking for food or breeding grounds.

Few migrations are as spectacular as those of flamingos, especially when they gather in the Great and Little Rann of Kutch in Gujarat. Every year, when the monsoons arrive in western India, the Rann gets inundated with water, transforming it into a thriving wetland. Because of the region’s proximity to the Arabian Sea, these shallow waterbodies have brackish water that breeds aquatic life such as shrimp, molluscs, plankton, and algae — food preferred by flamingos that arrive in collectives to breed here. In fact, they get their rosy colour from the beta-carotene pigment in the shrimp and algae they consume.

The major population of greater flamingos nest in the Greater Rann. However, several mixed groups of greater and lesser flamingos visit the Little Rann in colonies of a few thousand to hundreds of thousands. Historical reports from the region suggest the birds have been visiting the Rann for over 100 years.

There are six species of flamingos on Earth, of which the greater and lesser flamingos are found on the Indian subcontinent. The greater flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus), pictured here, has a pink beak with a brownish-black tip, and is the largest of flamingo species. The lesser flamingo (Phoeniconaias minor) has a brownish-crimson beak (in adults) and is the smallest of the species. The Great and Little Rann of Kutch are the only known breeding sites in Asia where both species are found.  “We have 5-6 nesting sites in the Little Rann,” says Nita Shah, a conservation ecologist who has been observing the species and this habitat for 34 years. “Out of these, 3-4 sites are mixed colonies with greater and lesser flamingos, and about two or three are pure colonies, occupied by a single species.”

There are six species of flamingos on Earth, of which the greater and lesser flamingos are found on the Indian subcontinent. The greater flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus), pictured here, has a pink beak with a brownish-black tip, and is the largest of flamingo species. The lesser flamingo (Phoeniconaias minor) has a brownish-crimson beak (in adults) and is the smallest of the species. The Great and Little Rann of Kutch are the only known breeding sites in Asia where both species are found.
“We have 5-6 nesting sites in the Little Rann,” says Nita Shah, a conservation ecologist who has been observing the species and this habitat for 34 years. “Out of these, 3-4 sites are mixed colonies with greater and lesser flamingos, and about two or three are pure colonies, occupied by a single species.”

The birds arrive in the Little Rann around mid-June. “The first rain is an indicator for adult flamingos to move towards their nesting grounds in the Rann,” says Shah. “The wetlands, about 40-100 km away, which are their foraging grounds, start to empty at this time.” Inundation is important to the flamingos as it ensures food, but also because it provides these ground-nesting birds materials for nests and safety from ground predators.

The birds arrive in the Little Rann around mid-June. “The first rain is an indicator for adult flamingos to move towards their nesting grounds in the Rann,” says Shah. “The wetlands, about 40-100 km away, which are their foraging grounds, start to empty at this time.” Inundation is important to the flamingos as it ensures food, but also because it provides these ground-nesting birds materials for nests and safety from ground predators.

Physiologically, flamingos are primed for this landscape. Like many wader species, they have long legs and webbed feet to grip the muddy soil without losing balance. “My fingers would probably get desiccated in about ten minutes with the high degree of salinity in the water,” says Shah. “but their webbing is unharmed because they are designed for this brined landscape. They might look delicate, but make no mistake, they are incredibly strong.”

Physiologically, flamingos are primed for this landscape. Like many wader species, they have long legs and webbed feet to grip the muddy soil without losing balance. “My fingers would probably get desiccated in about ten minutes with the high degree of salinity in the water,” says Shah. “but their webbing is unharmed because they are designed for this brined landscape. They might look delicate, but make no mistake, they are incredibly strong.”

Flamingos are monogamous; they mate with the same partner for life, or until one of the birds dies. The breeding cycle of both greater and lesser flamingos takes at least 2.5 months and involves nesting, egg-laying, hatching, and caring for young until they are old enough to travel. Before they arrive in the Rann, however, the birds engage in an elaborate courtship ritual where adult birds march together in unison. “Imagine 400 to 1,000 adult birds, with their necks upright, and beaks facing the sky, all bobbing their heads left and right in perfect synchrony,” says Shah. “I have seen these displays last from 90 minutes to nine hours.”

Flamingos are monogamous; they mate with the same partner for life, or until one of the birds dies. The breeding cycle of both greater and lesser flamingos takes at least 2.5 months and involves nesting, egg-laying, hatching, and caring for young until they are old enough to travel. Before they arrive in the Rann, however, the birds engage in an elaborate courtship ritual where adult birds march together in unison. “Imagine 400 to 1,000 adult birds, with their necks upright, and beaks facing the sky, all bobbing their heads left and right in perfect synchrony,” says Shah. “I have seen these displays last from 90 minutes to nine hours.”

Soon after the birds arrive, couples begin the laborious process of building a nest. Favourable nesting sites are isolated, with one to two feet of water around, and enough topsoil to create mound-like nests. The water protects the nest from terrestrial predators, but too much of it can wash the nest away. “In addition to rainfall, which can be quite heavy, the overflow from rivers must also be considered,” explains Shah. “Six rivers empty into the Little Rann of Kutch every monsoon, so it is important for the birds to find locations that are relatively safe from this flow.”

Soon after the birds arrive, couples begin the laborious process of building a nest. Favourable nesting sites are isolated, with one to two feet of water around, and enough topsoil to create mound-like nests. The water protects the nest from terrestrial predators, but too much of it can wash the nest away. “In addition to rainfall, which can be quite heavy, the overflow from rivers must also be considered,” explains Shah. “Six rivers empty into the Little Rann of Kutch every monsoon, so it is important for the birds to find locations that are relatively safe from this flow.”

“We have also seen the birds use salt pans for nesting in the last 30-40 years,” says Shah. The raised borders, or bunds of these pans are colonised by flamingos when larger numbers arrive for nesting. “Out of the 5-6 colonies that I have been monitoring, I see at least 1-2 on the salt bund,” says Shah.

“We have also seen the birds use salt pans for nesting in the last 30-40 years,” says Shah. The raised borders, or bunds of these pans are colonised by flamingos when larger numbers arrive for nesting. “Out of the 5-6 colonies that I have been monitoring, I see at least 1-2 on the salt bund,” says Shah.

Flamingo nests are mounds of black, sticky cotton soil, with a saucer-shaped depression atop for the egg. Both partners make the nest, using their beaks like spatulas. Getting the curvature is crucial to ensure the egg doesn’t roll off, says Shah. “I have seen this happen in birds that are new to the breeding process. Once the egg falls, they abandon it.”  Like many long-lived species, female flamingos lay only one egg per nesting season.

Flamingo nests are mounds of black, sticky cotton soil, with a saucer-shaped depression atop for the egg. Both partners make the nest, using their beaks like spatulas. Getting the curvature is crucial to ensure the egg doesn’t roll off, says Shah. “I have seen this happen in birds that are new to the breeding process. Once the egg falls, they abandon it.” Like many long-lived species, female flamingos lay only one egg per nesting season.

Eggs take 27-30 days to hatch, says Shah. “It takes the young between 24-36 hours to fully emerge from the egg, once the first crack, also known as a pip, has been made.” Flamingo hatchlings are extremely resilient and fast-growing. They leave their nest within 4-8 days and start growing feathers for flight within a week. During this time, one parent remains with the chick while the other forages, sometimes going as far as 100 km away. “It’s quite amazing that the adults know exactly which nest is theirs, in a colony of 10,000 birds, based on the sounds between chicks and parents.” Eggs take 27-30 days to hatch, says Shah. “It takes the young between 24-36 hours to fully emerge from the egg, once the first crack, also known as a pip, has been made.” Flamingo hatchlings are extremely resilient and fast-growing. They leave their nest within 4-8 days and start growing feathers for flight within a week. During this time, one parent remains with the chick while the other forages, sometimes going as far as 100 km away. “It’s quite amazing that the adults know exactly which nest is theirs, in a colony of 10,000 birds, based on the sounds between chicks and parents.”

Eggs take 27-30 days to hatch, says Shah. “It takes the young between 24-36 hours to fully emerge from the egg, once the first crack, also known as a pip, has been made.” Flamingo hatchlings are extremely resilient and fast-growing. They leave their nest within 4-8 days and start growing feathers for flight within a week. During this time, one parent remains with the chick while the other forages, sometimes going as far as 100 km away. “It’s quite amazing that the adults know exactly which nest is theirs, in a colony of 10,000 birds, based on the sounds between chicks and parents.”

Once the young are a little more comfortable with exploring, “all the chicks of the colony gather, like a kindergarten, biologically termed as a creche,” says Shah. “They form swarms and go feeding, into tracts having a mix of saline and fresh water, where they get optimal food.” At least one adult accompanies them, to ensure their safety. “One creche might have 3,000-5,000 birds, and they all look so vulnerable with their grey-brown down feathers and straight beaks.”

Once the young are a little more comfortable with exploring, “all the chicks of the colony gather, like a kindergarten, biologically termed as a creche,” says Shah. “They form swarms and go feeding, into tracts having a mix of saline and fresh water, where they get optimal food.” At least one adult accompanies them, to ensure their safety. “One creche might have 3,000-5,000 birds, and they all look so vulnerable with their grey-brown down feathers and straight beaks.”

During years with good rainfall, numerous nesting batches have been recorded in the Little Rann. When chicks are big enough to travel, the birds move to other wetland sites, 40-60 km away.  When the Rann receives heavy rain followed by a dry spell, the young may get stuck in silty soil and not find adequate food. “If the conditions are not suitable, the birds might abort the nesting site, or abandon the eggs,” says Shah. “Nesting happens even if a single rain arrives, but successful nesting happens only in good rainfall years.”

During years with good rainfall, numerous nesting batches have been recorded in the Little Rann. When chicks are big enough to travel, the birds move to other wetland sites, 40-60 km away.
When the Rann receives heavy rain followed by a dry spell, the young may get stuck in silty soil and not find adequate food. “If the conditions are not suitable, the birds might abort the nesting site, or abandon the eggs,” says Shah. “Nesting happens even if a single rain arrives, but successful nesting happens only in good rainfall years.”

There are other causes for abandonment too. Towards the end of the breeding season — early winter in the Little Rann — migratory raptors species such as steppe eagles and harriers arrive, posing a threat to flamingo colonies. “Flamingos in general, are easily spooked and will abandon an entire colony at the slightest unfamiliar movement,” says Shah. “Even when I was flying above the breeding site, we ensured we maintained a height of over 500 meters.”

Once the young can fly, the birds leave the breeding grounds. “By December-January, we start getting reports of birds arriving in Maharashtra, near Thane creek,” says Shah. “We also know of greater flamingo populations in Point Calimere in Tamil Nadu, Okhla barrage in Delhi, Harike Lake in Punjab, and Sambar lake in Rajasthan, but we cannot say whether these are the same birds that come to the Rann in the monsoon.”  Satellite tracking is one way to understand their movement, says Shah, but equipment is prohibitively expensive. “Almost 50 per cent of the tags fail, and these majestic birds are not getting the kind of research funds and grants that the species deserves.”

Once the young can fly, the birds leave the breeding grounds. “By December-January, we start getting reports of birds arriving in Maharashtra, near Thane creek,” says Shah. “We also know of greater flamingo populations in Point Calimere in Tamil Nadu, Okhla barrage in Delhi, Harike Lake in Punjab, and Sambar lake in Rajasthan, but we cannot say whether these are the same birds that come to the Rann in the monsoon.”
Satellite tracking is one way to understand their movement, says Shah, but equipment is prohibitively expensive. “Almost 50 per cent of the tags fail, and these majestic birds are not getting the kind of research funds and grants that the species deserves.”

Flamingos are powerful birds, capable of long migratory journeys and survival in caustic landscapes like the Rann, but they are also vulnerable to anthropogenic factors.  The pumping of the salt mines, for instance, often interrupts their breeding cycle. “My suggestion was to give the local community some monetary compensation, and request them to start salt panning about a month later, after the birds have completed their breeding cycle.” Sometimes, fisherfolk take their dogs on fishing trips, “and I have seen the dogs jump out of the boat and attack nests,” says Shah. “Even though there is hardly any direct interaction between humans and the birds, they are still impacted.”

Flamingos are powerful birds, capable of long migratory journeys and survival in caustic landscapes like the Rann, but they are also vulnerable to anthropogenic factors.
The pumping of the salt mines, for instance, often interrupts their breeding cycle. “My suggestion was to give the local community some monetary compensation, and request them to start salt panning about a month later, after the birds have completed their breeding cycle.” Sometimes, fisherfolk take their dogs on fishing trips, “and I have seen the dogs jump out of the boat and attack nests,” says Shah. “Even though there is hardly any direct interaction between humans and the birds, they are still impacted.”

Shah’s biggest cause for concern is the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada River. “When the dam is filled, they release water into canals that eventually lead to the Rann of Kutch,” she explains. When the water is released, it damages the whole colony because the mounds get washed away. “The solution is to have planned release of water in sites where the birds are not nesting,” says Shah. “Even agricultural land gets inundated with the sudden release of this water, plus the Narmada brings all manner of pollutants to the Rann.”

Shah’s biggest cause for concern is the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada River. “When the dam is filled, they release water into canals that eventually lead to the Rann of Kutch,” she explains. When the water is released, it damages the whole colony because the mounds get washed away. “The solution is to have planned release of water in sites where the birds are not nesting,” says Shah. “Even agricultural land gets inundated with the sudden release of this water, plus the Narmada brings all manner of pollutants to the Rann.”

Shah admires the birds’ synchrony and colour. “I remember flying above their foraging grounds in the Gulf of Khambhat and watching them in flight,” she says “Thousands and thousands of birds, flying in synchrony, making these wave-like motions, similar to starlings, it was just amazing! I took a picture and when I was back on ground, we counted 1.5 lakh birds in a single frame.” The question is, how long will we be privy to their magnificence?

Shah admires the birds’ synchrony and colour. “I remember flying above their foraging grounds in the Gulf of Khambhat and watching them in flight,” she says “Thousands and thousands of birds, flying in synchrony, making these wave-like motions, similar to starlings, it was just amazing! I took a picture and when I was back on ground, we counted 1.5 lakh birds in a single frame.” The question is, how long will we be privy to their magnificence?

Sustain Team
Sustain Team

We are a driven group of people from diverse backgrounds, bound by an abiding love for India’s natural world.

Dhritiman Mukherjee
Dhritiman Mukherjee

is one of India's most prolific wildlife and conservation photographers. His work has been featured in leading publications. He is also a RoundGlass Ambassador, and an RBS Earth Hero awardee.

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