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Confused Flamingos Keep Ending Up In Siberia

For the last century, flamingos have been dropping out of the sky over Siberia.

by Sarah Emerson
Oct 28 2016, 4:10pm

Greater flamingo. Image: Flickr/Shoot With Joy

Siberia is no stranger to freaky natural phenomena. It's seen gateways to the underworld, subterranean bubbles, and the awakening of frozen, undead plagues. What could be weirder?

Try flamingos dropping from sky.

This week, a greater flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus) was discovered by a group of children near the Siberian village of Motygino. The poor bird was in bad shape, according to The Siberian Times, and had meandered more than 3,000 miles off course. Instead of landing in the warm embrace of the Arabian Peninsula, the lone flamingo wound up in one of the coldest regions on Earth. Could this be a case of reverse migration, or is something more sinister going on?

The truth, it turns out, is an unfortunate fact of nature.

Greater flamingo flock. Image: Flickr/Amy Haskins

Famous for their resplendent, pink plumage, greater flamingos are a thriving species found in most warm regions throughout Africa and Eurasia. Vagrant populations also exist in colder parts of the world, such as Sweden, Norway, Latvia, and even Russia.

"Greater flamingos are famous for wandering. They have a wide range in Africa, southern Europe, the Middle East, and southern Asia, and flocks may travel major distances in response to changes in water conditions," Kenn Kaufman, a field editor at the National Audubon Society, told me in an email.

This confused avian, since named "Vasya" (a common Russian name, possibly short for "Vasily") by its rescuers, isn't the first flamingo to have descended upon the frigid landscape. In 2003 and 2004, ice fishers witnessed flamingos falling from the sky over two separate Siberian rivers. Then, a decade later in 2015, a flock was spotted on the Tom River near the city of Kemerovo, and in the Altai Mountains of southern Siberia. According to historical records described by The Siberian Times, flamingos have been seen in the region as early as 1907.

Each year, sometime around November, flocks of greater flamingos nesting in Kazakhstan migrate south to Iran. Over the last decade, biologists with the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi have been using satellite trackers to map the migrational routes of these birds, hoping to learn more about wetland health in the region. While the flamingo species isn't considered vulnerable to extinction, its shares a critical habitat with other species, such as reptiles and insects, that could require conservation attention.

As far as Siberian flamingos are concerned, it's likely the birds were simply mixed up at the start of their migration, and ended up in the wrong place by accident.

"I suspect that the birds showing up in Siberia may have come from the closest nesting populations in Kazakhstan, or possibly from nesting colonies in Turkey or in parts of the Middle East. From Kazakhstan they would only have to make a minor mistake to wind up in Siberia," Kaufman told me.

Distance between flamingo nesting grounds in Kazakhstan, Siberia, and Iran.

Lots of smaller birds fall victim to reverse migration, such as fork-tailed flycatchers that mistakenly wander from South America to the United States every year. But bigger, more colorful birds like flamingos stand a greater chance at getting noticed.

Andrew Farnsworth, a research associate at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, also shared this theory. "This is often a case of variation in the expression of whatever genes control birds' abilities to orient," he told me in an email.

"So, for example, some individuals may orient one way… but then a small percentage will vary in their orientation vis a vis genetic variation and perhaps move in 90 or 180 degree offset directions. Additionally, if birds do make errors and orient to odd locations, many individuals may simply fly downwind (with the wind) and land at the first favorable or semi-favorable site"

Greater flamingos near Bhigwan, India. Image: Flickr/Saurabh Sawant

When I asked whether climate change might be causing these occurrences, Farnsworth told me "probably not." If this were the case, he added, we might see breeding populations of flamingos in Siberia, indicating that temperatures had warmed enough for them to thrive there. But as far as we know, the region's feathered visitors are just disoriented tourists.

Still, he admitted that flamingos in Siberia are a pretty rare thing, and their behavior is "aberrant in relation to what almost all other flamingos in Eurasia are doing."

While it's a relief to know that Siberia's rapidly warming climate isn't harming flamingos, global temperature changes are still one of the biggest threats to avians. When it comes to the effects of climate change, migratory birds are seen as canaries in a coal mine. A 2006 report in Bird Species and Climate Change estimated that bird extinction rates could exceed 38 percent in Europe and 72 percent in northeastern Australia if the Paris Agreement's global average temperature goals aren't achieved.

For now, at least Vasya the flamingo is in good hands. "We would like to pass the flamingo to a zoo or shelter with rare birds," said Antonina Maisa, who is currently caring for the animal.

"Somewhere the flamingo will be comfortable, alongside companions with whom it can communicate."

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