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Many observers have noted that flamingos and other wading birds often stand on only one leg while tucking the other leg up under the body. Flamingos exhibit this behavior both in the wild and in captivity, suggesting that it is entirely natural rather than the result of stress caused by confinement. Many theories have been put forward to explain this phenomenon, such as a theory that it conserves body heat or promotes circulation. Ultimately, however, nobody is really sure why flamingos stand on one leg.
The Conservation Theory
One of the more widely accepted theories is that flamingos stand on one leg to conserve body heat and energy. Some ornithologists have suggested that flamingos might essentially turn off half of the brain to rest and balance on the leg that is connected to the part of the brain that is awake. Tucking one leg under the body would help conserve body heat because it would minimize the surface area that is exposed to the air.
The Circulation Theory
Alternating legs might also allow the flamingo to rest and promote circulation through both legs. The long legs of these birds require extra work from the heart to circulate blood fully throughout the body. Especially when flamingos are standing in cool water, the heart is forced to circulate more blood to keep both legs warm. By tucking one leg closer to the body, a flamingo might reduce the load on its heart.
The Camouflage Theory
Another theory is that standing on one leg might help to camouflage the bird, because the single leg resembles the reeds and grasses in which flamingos often stand. Given that flamingos eat plant matter, crustaceans and mollusks, it seems unlikely that they need to develop camouflage to conceal themselves from their prey. When one considers that the bodies of flamingos also are a distinctive pink color, it also seems unlikely that they would be entirely successful at masquerading as reeds.
The Collision Avoidance Theory
It has even been suggested by some ornithologists that flamingos stand on one leg so that ducks run into them only half as often. Although this mostly humorous theory might have some merit, it dismisses other bird species that are at risk of duck collisions while sharing a habitat with flamingos, such as spoonbills, skimmers and geese. Flamingos tend to congregate in large flocks, so it is probable that ducks have learned to avoid these birds on their own.
As is evident, many theories have been posited for this peculiar, trademark flamingo behavior, although a concrete explanation might never be reached. Like most mysteries in nature, the truth probably is a combination of several theories, although it is most likely related to energy conservation and resting behavior. Long-term study of flamingos and other wading birds both in the wild and in captivity has not resulted in a concrete answer to the question, but perhaps it might someday.