Why Do Flamingos Stand on One Leg?

Doesn't that leg get tired after a while?

Flamingo One-Leg

Igor Rybaltchenko / Getty Images

We're all familiar with the flamingo's signature one-legged stance. But what first caused this behavioral norm? And doesn't that standing leg get tired after a while?

Here, we uncover why flamingos stand on one leg and other facts about their quirky standing habits.

Research Findings

The name flamingo comes from the Spanish word "flamenco," which means fire. A type of wading bird, all flamingos belong to the family Phoenicopteridae. There are a total of six species of flamingos in the world.

Many scientists believe these birds stand on one leg because it is easier for them than standing on two legs. A study by Emory University examined two flamingo cadavers to discover why flamingos exhibit this behavior. After the dissection of the cadavers, the researchers found that the flamingo can support its body weight on one leg without any muscle activity. The study also concluded that it took more effort for the bird’s muscles to hold a two-legged stance than a one-legged one.

Ting and her team also analyzed eight live juvenile flamingos and found that flamingos swayed less as they became less active. When the birds fell asleep on one leg (using very little muscle activity), they swayed much less frequently compared to when they were very active. Their findings suggest that instead of relying on active muscular effort, the flamingo relies on passive mechanisms to support its body and control its balance.

This connects to both energy efficiency and temperature control. A study conducted at Saint Joseph's University analyzed the resting patterns of Caribbean flamingos in relation to temperature. The researchers did not find lateral support leg preferences—meaning a flamingo might stand on either leg for a period of time—but they did confirm that the flamingos were more inclined to engage in "unipedal resting" on cooler days, proving thermoregulation.

To confirm, according to the Flamingo Specialists Group, featuring co-chair and zoologist Dr. Paul Rose, flamingos are able to comfortably balance one leg and thus save energy in this standing position. This behavior is more energy-efficient (and safer) than standing on two legs; if a predator approaches, the flamingo is actually able to get away more quickly.

Other Birds That Stand on One Leg

Lone Canada Goose Standing One-Legged on Wetlands Mud Flat
Ducks, herons, geese, hawks, and gulls also stand on one leg. Jeff Huth / Getty Images

Other birds that stand on one leg include ducks, herons, geese, hawks, and gulls. As is the case with flamingos, many researchers suspect that they do this to minimize heat loss.

Within these birds’ bodies, arteries transport warm blood to their legs, which are connected to the veins that return colder blood to the birds’ hearts. When the leg is tucked up, it reduces about half of the amount of heat that is lost.

Accipiters such as hawks hold their foot in a similar way to flamingos, with the foot resting inside their belly feathers. They tend to switch back and forth between legs. Meanwhile, birds such as doves have short legs and can move their bodies down so their feathered belly is pressed against their feet while perched.

View Article Sources
  1. Chang, Young-Hui and Lena Ting. "Mechanical Evidence That Flamingos Can Support Their Body on One Leg with Little Active Muscular Force." Biology Letters, vol. 13, no. 5, 2017, pp. 20160948., doi:10.1098/rsbl.2016.0948

  2. Anderson, Matthew J., et al. "Laterality and Temperature Effects in Flamingo Resting Behaviour." Flamingo Specialty Group, 2018, pp. 4-8.

  3. "Fifteen Favourite Flamingo Facts for International Flamingo Day." Flamingo Specialty Group.

  4. "Why Do Birds Rest on One Leg?" Audubon Society.