“Sa genti arrubia”: the red-winged people. Flamingos of Sardinia: a thousand-year story of nature, beauty and legends.

One of the most stunning images of Sardinia, the sort of image that everyone keeps as a permanent souvenir, is this: a small stretch of water lined with marshy plants, and at its centre, a collection of slender, spectacularly elegant white wading birds with their wings folded, and intense, vivid pink beaks and legs.
These are flamingos: will fill anyone with wonder.
When you see that flash of red, you’ll understand the countless names they are known by around the world.
Flamingos, “fenicotteri” in Italian and “flamants” in French all essentially mean “the flaming ones”, originally taking their name from the Greek for “the ones with the red wings”. All these names hark back to the legend of the phoenix, the mythical bird that was burnt and then rose again from its ashes.
But when you’re in Sardinia, you will hear them called by a different name, a name full of respect that gives you a sense of how much they have been a constant presence on our island. Here we use a name that encompasses them all: they’re called “Genti Arrubia”, the red people. When you see them, it really does make you think of a crowd of people. They’re a metre-and-a-half tall, calmly walking around in the water, making a sound that is reminiscent of the constant chatter of a group of friends walking around town on a Sunday afternoon. In fact, they actually have quite a similar call to ducks, albeit perhaps fuller and deeper, but from a distance it feels like they are having an animated conversation in an unknown language.

On our island, too, these birds have given rise to several legends. One of them has it that if a musician takes their launeddas from the femur of the flamingo, rather than from humble reeds, they would have an enchanted instrument with immense powers. Fortunately for the flamingos, and the listeners who would have been taken over by the magic of that music, launeddas are only made from reeds and their only magical power is producing exquisite music.

In Sardinia, flamingos are easy to find. Every little stretch of brackish water, every lake and every coastal lagoon can be their habitat and they can appear at any time of year. Flamingos are in fact migratory, and they should be travelling constantly between Africa and the northern coasts of the Mediterranean. But our island is right at the heart of that sea, and its climate is perfect for the “Genti Arrubia”, whether it’s mid-winter or under the summer sun.

The Molentargius and Saline lakes and the Santa Gilla lagoon, which frame the city of Cagliari, are places where the flamingos nest every year in late spring. At this time of year, from the hillsides of the city, you can see literally thousands of them, with featherless hatchlings appearing charcoal grey, lacking the white and red that they acquire over time. It is the sort of spectacular display you would only in expect in Africa or the Camargue, yet you can admire this vision with ease, a short walk from the city centre.

For flamingos, any coastal lagoon behind the beaches is a place of refuge and a plentiful and safe source of food. They feed by filtering the silt from the bottom of the lagoon, using their curved beak, which evolved to serve as a sieve. With their extremely long legs and neck, they can even feed in water up to almost a metre in depth, where no other bird could do so. That’s why they are so easy to find in the lagoon at Chia, and in the other stretches of brackish water along the coast, which for them are just a few minutes’ flight away from the lakes of Cagliari.
When flamingos move from one lake to another, or along the coast, it is also a spectacle. The larger birds take off by taking a run-up on the water and they combine into flocks that can include dozens and dozens of them, arranged in a large “V” formation. They fly with their neck and legs outstretched, so long they undulate as they fly. You often see them passing over the beach at Chia, or above the Cagliari city centre. As they go by, you can hear their unmistakable call, distantly but clearly, as if they were calling or reassuring each other.

For the flamingos, Sardinia is a safe place in the middle of the sea, a transit point, a rest stop, a settling point. For them, Sardinia is a symbolic and familiar presence. Over the centuries they have acquired extraordinary confidence - to the extent that in some places they will let people admire them up close, without the need of binoculars.

At Chia, they’re at home. They are the glamorous face of nature, wild but familiar, peaceful and respected. To see them is to feel the thousands of years of migrations across the sea, sharing something with ‘people’ who lived or landed here before us, and have been part of the history of this sea.
You feel that these are special ‘people’ who bring magic to whatever landscape they land on, and you realise how appropriate their name is here: Sa Genti Arrubia - the red people.
Follow us on