Flamingo Conservation in Mexico
by Roger Steeb

June/Junio 1996

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Ria Celestún, Mexico - A group of fishermen gathered to watch my wife and I assemble our folding kayak at the bridge embankment at the edge of the coastal lagoon at la Reserva Especial de la Biosfera de Ria Celestún -- locally, the estuaries that parallel the coast are called rias. Here on the Yucatun coast, 90 kilometers from Merida, tourists are a familar sight, but a boat that comes out of a bag was something new.

Marcos Ake Quintal, one of the two park rangers, stopped his motor bike to ask us to stay 100 meters from the birds, particularly los flamencos. He estimated that in the reserve at this time of year there were 10,000 American Flamingos, also called Caribbean Flamingos because they are found throughout much of the Caribbean to the tip of Florida. An outstanding conservation success story, the Mexican flamingo population climbed from 8,000 when the nesting and feeding areas were given protection in 1979 to a high of 26,000 individuals in 1988. Then in the same year Hurricane Gilbert caused a setback for the population. Schmitz and Baldassarre (1990) censused 19,500 in January of 1989 in Ria Celestún. When not nesting at Ria Lagartos, the flamingos disperse to feeding areas around the Peninsula including Bocas de Dzilam, Isla Holbox, and a few as far south as Bahia Ascension in the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve. Therefore, much of coast of the state of Yucatun has been set aside as ecological reserves, approximately 222 kilometers including Bocas de Dzilam, and Ria Lagartos (Flores Nava, 1991).

These reserves are sizeable: 59,130 hectares at Ria Celestún, the primary wintering area, 47,840 ha at Ria Lagartos, the primary nesting area, and 62,000 ha at Bocas de Dzilam State Reserve. In 1993, some flamingos began nesting in the ajoining state of Campeche causing the state government to set side a new reserve called "Petenes-Celestún."

Here in northernmost Campeche 23,517 ha of mangroves and petenes, which are round islands or hummocks whose freshwater seepage supports forest trees in the mangrove swamps, are now protected primarily for wading birds. The petenes themselves provide habitat for a variety of forest bird species generally restricted to the southern part of the Yucatan Peninsula.

In the year following the hurricane, the situation was difficult for the flamingos, the productivity of the lagoon at Celestún was low, some flamingos showed signs of lead poisoning, and the nesting area was disturbed. Some flamingos were found dead and a number appeared too weak to feed. Although lead poisoning was demonstrated by autopsy, luckily, such incidents were not repeated in following years and Schmitz (1990) estimates that less than 100 flamingos died of an unknown source lead poisoning. It was thought that during the unique circumstances resulting from Hurricane Gilbert, the flamingos had moved to El Palmar State Reserve and surrounding wetlands which permit duck hunting and had consumed lead shot in those sediments. Continued testing of sediments in Celestún have shown no trace of lead. Nesting patterns were also altered by after-effects of the hurricane.

A big fire inland of Ria Lagartos in 1989 caused many animals to move towards the coast. The flamingo eggs are vunerable to racoons (Proycon lotor) and the chicks to the gray fox (Uroyocon cinereoargentus) both of which are relatively common in the region. As a result the flamingos abandoned their main nesting area. Some nesting took place at feeding areas at Uaymitun, Sisal, and Celestún. In following years, the flamingos returned to their primary nesting area of Ria Lagartos, but some continue to nest at Uaymitun. A few juveniles may remain at Celestún all year. Seven years after Hurricane Gilbert the disturbances are still evident.

There are broken tree trunks, abandoned buildings, and the lagoon is said to still not has returned to the level of productivity it had before the storm. These areas are key wintering areas and migration resting stops for over a dozen species of North American shorebirds as well as wading birds. "The reserve [at Celestún] is considered the fourth most important bird overwintering site in the Gulf of Mexico (Conrad, 1995)." The Nature Conservancy targeted these wetlands as part of their Parks in Peril Program. The North American Wetlands Council, Ducks Unlimited, and Pronatura also have programs.

Academic Research

Eduardo Galicia, stopped by to inspect my kayak after distributing questionaires to tourists taking boat tours of the lagoon. A resident of Merida, he is completing his thesis at Leigh University in Pennsylvania. His research focuses on how the tour boats affect flamingo behavior and secondly how much tourists would be willing to spend on an entrance fee if the money collected was to be utilized for conservation measures . Eduardo lives at the ten-year-old field station of Ducks Unlimited of Mexico, right next to my launch point. He introduced me to Felicity Arengo, of Syracuse University. who is studying dominance behavior in flamingos. Eduardo and I paddled the kayak near a group of flamingos and then drifted. As we approached, the flamingos generally walked away rather than taking flight. The flamingos, wood storks, egrets, and some of the herons are at home in the open water and don't seem to mind being on display as long as you keep your distance.

Felicity invited me to join Jennifer on a trip in the research station's flat bottomed boat. Jennifer is a student in international programs at University of Delaware, researching a paper on Ramsar sites. Ramsar, the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance especially Waterfowl Habitat is involved in the designation of critical wetlands for protection. Ria Lagartos, a major nesting area for the flamingo in the Caribbean, is the only Ramsar site in Mexico. Many people advocate that Ria Celestún be designated in a similar manner.

After shutting off the motor, Felicity poled the flat-bottomed aluminum boat towards a flock of flamingos with noticeable differences in the color of the plumage. Young birds are generally lighter in color. We photographed the interactions among the birds. There was already some aggression among males in March. Soon, neighboring flamingos will squabble almost continually. They defend territories to feed, breed, or nest. When I talked with Eduardo over dinner, he said,"None of us working with flamingos in the Yucatun have seen anything like injured fighting flamingos, although the fights can get really nasty, engaging necks and strongly hitting with the bills."

I met with the director of the reserve, Sandra L. de la Portilla and her two rangers, Marcos Ake Quintal, and Eliodoro Caamal Couoh in their small office between the town of Celestún and the bridge. They felt that patrolling the reserve with their small staff was the most important task, lacking staff for additional projects. In addition to protecting waterfowl, there are volunteer summer programs to coordinate such as those by Pronatura to protect the nesting areas of marine turtles.

Protecting Celestún

The barrier beach at Celestún is not as extensive as the 50 mile long narrow spit edging the saline lagoon of Ria Lagartos where Hawksbill, Loggerhead, Green, and a few Leatherback turtles haul ashore to dig nests above the high tide line, but marine turtle eggs here also need to be relocated to a protected area near the lighthouse between Sisal and Celestún.

In January of 1995, representatives of Pronatura, the Latin American Division of the Nature Conservancy, and other nature organizations met at the research station to discuss the development of an interpretive center for the reserve. A visitor center could help educate tourists about the need to give the highly visible birds some personal space. Work began on the visitor center located at the spring known as "Baldiosera" located 8 kilometers north of the bridge and accessible only by boat.

At the other side of the bridge are the docks for the eight passenger tour boats. The boat operators are also anxious to avoid disturbing the flamingos. They follow deeper channels in the lagoon and approach from downwind because the flamingos always take flight into the wind. Approaching from upwind, forces them to take flight earlier. Eduardo Galacia told me that unfortunately the tour operators aren't the only boat operators in the estuary. Fishermen anchored at the Celestún ocean-front a kilometer away offer their boats for hire to tourists sitting at the nearby restaurants.

This not only competes with the cooperative at the bridge that runs the official tours, but damages the estuary. The ocean-going fishing boats are the same length, but have a deeper profile and their propellers stir up more mud when they enter the estuary at its mouth 12 kilometers to the south. Another problem is that three or four boats are much more threatening to the flamingos if the boats approach together instead of being scattered around the estuary. As more groups arrive by bus or car caravan, tourists may be reluctant to split up and and it is hard for the boatmen to resist the request to take several boats to the same location. Eduardos observation for his thesis showed that the flamingos do significantly alter their behaviour while boats are close by. A great deal of feeding time is lost.

The broad, shallow coastal lagoon that is the core of Ria Celestún is weedy, with a high productivity of invertebrates which attracts the flamingos and other waterfowl. Flamingos use complex filtering system to strain out crustaceans, snails, midge larvae, and seeds of aquatic plants, particularly wideongrass (Ruppia maritima).

The lagoon is less than half as saline as the ocean. However, at the landlocked end of Ria Lagartos where the flamingos nest, the salinity is almost twice as great as the ocean. Flamingos are equipped with salt glands near the eye to deal with the saltwater ingested with their food. For centuries salt has been extracted by evaporation in ponds separated by dikes. So far the flamingos and the salt industry have been able to coexist.

For a shallow boat like our kayak low tide is best for observing birds on the flats. At Celestún, where the water was shallow enough to see the bottom, we could observe the craters in the clay bottom where the flamingos tread while feeding. Since the lagoon is 2.2 kilometers wide and generally less than 4 feet deep we were not bothered by the tour boats. There are Laughing Gulls, Skimmers and Royal Terns loafing together on mud flats. The Blue-Winged Teal and Northern Shovelers tend to rest together also.

The boats follow channels, while fishermen walk their dories waist-deep in the shallows pulling triangular shrimp nets. Each man seems to have his own territory. After a few minutes of walking, the fisherman drives a pole into the mud to keep the dory from moving away downwind while he sorts the catch. Blue crabs are caught using circular nets hung from float 2011
Visions. The estuary is worked mainly in the winter when the ocean is too rough for fishing. In the evening, we often saw the fishermen putting up scraps of cloth for sails rather than poling back. Many of the dories are tied up in the mangroves at night and the fishermen ride back to the bridge in motor boats. In a biosphere reserve such as this one, research in natural resource management is part of the planning process. Some programs include growing blue-crabs or Jaiba (Callinectes sapidus) using aquacultural methods. Juveniles are caught, confined, and fed fishery wastes for four months. There is also was experimental aquaculture of four species of shrimp (Flores Nava, 1991).

I particularly enjoyed paddling out in the evening. Line after line of birds flew up the estuary. Pelicans string together behind each other in line, while egrets fly in parallel lines. Cormorants and white ibis fly in V formations. A single Little-Blue-Egret had slipped into the left column of the V formation of White Ibis flying low over the water. The intruder stood out like a black button on the sleeve of white shirt blowing on a clothes-line. I saw one of the ibis scratch its neck with its foot while holding its position. I was reminded of the flamingo I saw that twisted its head and neck to scratch its shoulder while in flight.

Both white and brown pelicans feed near the flamingos. The white pelicans are migrants from the U.S. and Canada. One of the islands near the spring has roosting magnificent frigate birds, white ibis, common egrets, little blue herons and lots of cormorants. Some endangered crocodiles are said to frequent these islands.

The low, swampy character that makes suitable habitat for wildlife is a result of the high discharge of fresh water through the system of fractures and cenotes (sinkholes in limestone). Elsewhere a thin, caliche-like layer of calcium carbonate retards the flow of freshwater into the sea. Seaward of the port of Progresso, about 50 kilometers away, is a large impact crater, now buried by almost a kilometer of sediment, believed to coincide with the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million ago. Eugene Perry (1995) and colleages have described a 110 mile wide "Ring of Cenotes" outlining the Chicxulub Impact Crater. The ring of factured bedrock strikes the coast at Celestún and Bocas de Dzilam providing the ground water flow to submarine springs such as "Baldisera" which keep the coastal lagoons open to the sea despite a strong long shore current and high sand transport.

Perry warns that the geology that created conditions for wildlife reserves could also be its downfall if the natural conduit delivers agricultural waste water from future large-scale hog or chicken production to the estuaries of Celestún and Bocas de Dzilam. The flamingos have survived hurricanes, fires, saltworks, and being on display for multitudes of tourists and bird watchers, but their habitat is vunerable to population pressures. If tourism develops along the Northern Yucatun coast the way it has on the Cancun-Tulum strip, their unique rias will not be able to support them.

Literature Cited

Arengo, Felicity, and Guy A. Baldassare. 1995. Effects of food density on the behavior and distribution of nonbreeding American Flamingos in Yucatan; Mexico. Condor 97(2): 325-334.

Correa-Sandoval, Jorge, and Jesus Garcia-Barren. 1993. Avifauna de Ria Celestún y Ria Lagartos. Pages 641-645 in Sergio I. Salazar- Vallejo and Norma Emilia Gonalez, editors. Biodiversidad Marina y Costera de Mexico. Chetumal: Centro de Investigaciones de Quintana Roo.

Espino-Barros, Ricardo, and Guy A Baldassarre. 1989. Activity and habitat-use patterns of breeding caribbean flamingos in Yucatan, Mexico. Condor 91(3): 585-591.

__________. 1989. Numbers, migration chronology, and activity patterns of nonbreeding Caribbean Flamingos in Yucatan, Mexico. Condor 91(3): 592-597.

Flores-Nava, Alejandro. 1991. Situacion actual y perspectivas de la acuacultura costera en Yucatan, Mexico. Universidad y Ciencia 8(16): 87-95.

Parra, Miguel Angel. 1991. Chuburna, rehabilitando una cienega primordial: Chuburna, rehabilitating a primordial wetland. DUMAC 16(2): 37-39.

Perry, Eugene, Luis Marin, Jana McClain and Guadlupe Velezquez. 1995. Ring of cenotes (sinkholes), northwest Yucatan, Mexico: its hydrogeologic characteristics and possible association with the Chicxulub impact crater. Geology 23(1): 17-20.

Pronatura realizara' este ano en la ria de Celestún . El Diario de Yucatan, 15 de junio. Available at http:\\

Savage, Melissa. 1993. Ecological disturance and nature tourism. Geographical Review 83(4): 290-300.

Schmitz, Richard A., A. Alonso-Aguirre, Robert S. Cook, and Guy A. Baldassarre. 1990. Lead poisoning of Caribbean Flamingos in Yucatan, Mexico. Wildlife Society Bulletin 18(4): 399-404.

Schmitz, Richard A, and Guy A. Baldassarre;. 1992. Contest asymmetry and multiple bird conflicts during foraging among nonbreeding American Flamingos in Yucatan, Mexico. Condor 94(2): 254-259.

__________. 1992. Correlates of flock size and behavior of foraging American Flamingos following Hurricane Gilbert in Yucatan, Mexico. Condor 94(2): 260-264.


Roger Steeb works for New Mexico State University and wrote this article in 1995. He can be reached via email:



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