RSPB Walsall Local Group

a million voices for nature

James' Flamingo and Walsall

A Flamingo? In Walsall?

Not quite — but one is named after a Walsall man…

Harry Berkeley James

Harry Berkeley James was born in Walsall (then in Staffordshire) in 1846. Little is known of his family or childhood, but at the age of 21 he started work as a clerk for Gunston and Edmundson, in Valparaíso, one of the main seaports of Chile, which served as a major stopover for ships travelling between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans by crossing the Straits of Magellan, before the Panama Canal was built. Just four years later, he began work for Anthony Gibbs and Company, managing a large potassium nitrate (saltpetre) mine, near the border with Peru, then set up his own business in Iquique (then in Peru) as a merchant. Shortly afterwards, he narrowly escaped drowning, after an earthquake and tidal wave destroyed his home, leaving no trace on the beach where it once stood.

A keen naturalist, he made a hazardous mule journey to Chanchamayo, a town in the Junín Region of central Peru, to see the native birds and to collect butterflies and moths.

After Chile declared war with Bolivia and Peru in April 1879 (the 'War of the Pacific' or 'Saltpetre War'), his business declined, and he returned to England. He met and married his wife, near his old Staffordshire home, and they returned to Valparaíso in 1881. He began collecting birds, both by shooting them (as was the done thing, at that time) and by buying specimens from other hunters.

In 1885, James published a 15-page pamphlet about the birds of Chile, then retired to Epsom, in Surrey. Before he did so, he paid a German naturalist at Santiago Museum, Carlos Rhaner, to collect more birds and send them to him. The birds sent by Rhaner were examined and catalogued by Philip Sclater. James funded a further expedition, by Ambrose Lane, whose findings were again curated by Sclater.

James died on 22 July 1892, at the early age of 42, so his New List of Chilian Birds had to be finished and published by Sclater, posthumously, later that year. The 15-page book (presumably an update of the 1885 work) included a biographical preface by Sclater.

James' collection of 1,382 skins and 678 eggs of Chilean birds went to the British Museum's Natural History section, which later became the Natural History Museum.

James' Flamingo

Among the birds collected by Rhaner was a new flamingo, which Sclater described in the "Proceedings of the Zoological Society" (1886) and named "James' Flamingo" (Phoenicoparrus jamesi) in honour of his patron.

It is a small and delicate flamingo, approximately 3 feet (1 metre) in height. Its plumage is pale pink, with bright carmine streaks around the neck and on the back, which is draped with long scarlet plumes in the breeding season. When perched a small amount of black can be seen in the wings. Many consider it the most attractive of the flamingos. They have all-black flight feathers, including the secondaries (these are red in the other species) and is unique among flamingos as it lacks a hind toe. There is bright red skin around the eye, the legs are brick-red and the bill is bright yellow with a black tip. Immature birds are greyish, and do not achieve adult plumage until they are three or four years old.

It has the most restricted home-range of all the flamingo species, and breeds on the high Andean plateaux of southern Peru, north-eastern Chile, western Bolivia, and north-western Argentina. Chiefly non-migratory, only some birds make local movements to lower altitudes in winter, when they crowd into open water near hot springs in winter, as the night-time temperatures drop to -30° C and even the saline lakes would otherwise freeze solid. Sometimes known as the Puna Flamingo, it is closely related to the Chilean Flamingo (Phoenicopterus chilensis) and the Andean Flamingo (Phoenicopterus andinus). It has a deep-keeled bill and feeds mainly on algae and diatoms, the latter about 0.6–0.8 mm in length. The bill has a comb-like structure, with 54 'teeth' to the inch. They feed with their bills held upside-down, pointing backward and slightly open, using their plunger-like tongues to suck in water, mud and food items up to a certain size. Then their tongues pump the water and smaller food particles out .

In 1924, the James' Flamingo was believed to be extinct. It was rediscovered by a special expedition in 1957, a few dozen pairs, cohabiting with a much larger number of Chilean Flamingos and Andean Flamingo, breeding as a mixed flock, on a salt island at Laguna Colorada ('the red lake'), 14,035 feet up in the Bolivian mountains — the first James' Flamingo nests ever found. The following year, far greater numbers were observed there: between 5,000 and 7,000 pairs — outnumbering the other two species. By the 1980s, the figure had risen to around 26,000 pairs. The species now has an estimated global population of 63,000, which is classed as stable but vulnerable — 85% of the population breed at one site, Laguna Colorada. It is classified as 'Near Threatened' on the IUCN Red List 2004* and is listed on Appendices I and II of the Convention on Migratory Species* (the Bonn Convention). The biggest danger to its survival is the old favourite, habitat loss.

Like all flamingos, it lays a single chalky white egg on a cone-shaped mud mound. Nesting success is unpredictable. James' Flamingos at Laguna Colorada raised 10,500 chicks in 1997 but only 1,260 the next year. Once the chick begins to hatch, its parents may help it to escape from its shell. The chick's bill is straight at first, but soon gains its typical curve. The chick spends up to 12 days in the nest after hatching.

There is a small flock of James' Flamingo (down to just three individuals, at the time of writing) at the WWT centre at Slimbridge, where they have nested and laid eggs, but do not breed regularly. They are kept with the Andean Flamingos.


See also:


Many thanks to group member Andy Thomas* for bringing this matter to our attention; to Dr. Malcolm Ogilvie* for assistance, and to Vladimír Motycka and Carol Ogilvie for kindly granting permission to use their artwork, whose copyright remains theirs.

Andy Mabbett
May 2006


* Neither the Group nor the RSPB can accept responsibility for the content of web sites to which we link.