24 April 2020


Flamingos at Rosamond
Gifford Zoo, Syracuse, N.Y.
Welcome back. Searching for a study to blog about when research is focused on COVID-19, I chanced upon a topic of beauty--flamingos--and interest--their social behavior.

Because I knew next to nothing about flamingos, I dug a little before jumping into the study. I’ll share some of what I found. If you’re already up on flamingos or pressed for time, just skip to the section titled The Flamingo Study.

Prepping for the Flamingo Study
Flamingos are considered wading birds and are found in freshwater to saltwater habitats in the Caribbean and South America to Africa, the Middle East and Europe. They generally live 20 to 30 years in the wild and 50 years or longer in captivity. Primary threats are predators, poachers and habitat loss.

They are the only members of the taxonomic family Phoenicopteridae. There are six species: the American (Caribbean), Andean, Chilean, Greater, Lesser and Puna (James’s). Size-wise, they range from the lesser flamingo (up to 3 feet tall, 6 pounds, 3.3 ft wingspan) to the greater flamingo (up to 5 ft tall, 8 pounds, 5.4 ft wingspan).

Lesser flamingos on Lake Bogoria, Kenya
(Steve Garvie, www.thespruce.com/where-to-see-flamingos-387032).
Though they’re normally seen wading, flamingos are strong swimmers and can fly as fast as 35 mph. Wading, they often stand on one leg. It’s thought they tuck the other leg into their plumage to preserve body heat. That backward-bending part of the leg that appears to be the knee is actually the ankle. The knee is hidden by the plumage.

The color of that plumage--pink, orange, red--is from the carotenoid pigments in their diet of crustaceans, algae, plankton and shrimp. If the food doesn’t provide pigmentation, they’ll appear whiter or grayer.

Flamingo Social and Family Matters
Flamingos are sociable and do better in larger flocks. Several dozen birds are common, flocks of a million or more have been reported. Large flocks offer safety against predators and are more stable for breeding success.

They’re monogamous. They lay one egg each year that is not usually replaced if it’s removed, damaged or fails to hatch. Chicks are born gray or white, and parenting is shared. Both feed the chicks a high fat, high protein “crop milk,” produced in their throats then digestive tract.

Caribbean flamingo feeding chick, Whipsnade Zoo, Dunstable, UK
(Martin Pettitt, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Caribbean_flamingo5.jpg).
The Flamingo Study
To better understand flamingos’ social network and behavior, researchers affiliated with the UK’s University of Exeter conducted a five-year investigation of captive flocks of Caribbean, Chilean, Andean and Lesser flamingos at the Slimbridge Wetland Center. The Slimbridge wetland wildlife reserve has the world’s largest collection of captive wildfowl and is one of eight Wildlife & Wetlands Trust reserves in the UK.

The four flocks studied varied from just over 20 to more than 140 flamingos. Since foot lesions can compromise the health and welfare of captive birds, they also monitored three of the four flocks’ individual foot health to identify any relationship between health and social behavior.

While all flamingos socialized more than remained solitary, especially in larger flocks, the researchers observed long-term partnerships in every flock. Bird pairs, trios and quartets in Year 1 were still present in Year 5. Same-sex bonds were as stable as male-female bonds, which is not to say there weren’t birds that just didn’t get along. Within a network, bonding increased in spring and summer, the breeding season. Foot health was not a factor.

Wrap Up
The study found that, although flamingos are highly sociable, particularly in large flocks, they have preferred partners or “friends” in addition to mates, and there are some flamingos in the flock they avoid.

The results have significance for managing captive flamingos. Zoo-housed flocks should have a sufficient number of flamingos to offer the choice of friends and breeding partners. If the birds must be moved, care should be taken to prevent separating closely bonded flamingos.

Thanks for stopping by. 

Oregon Zoo’s two-week old, greater flamingo chicks
(from video www.youtube.com/watch?v=nsx-gsfnDAk).
Study of flamingo social networks in Behavioural Processes journal: www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0376635719303377
Article on study on EurekAlert! website: www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2020-04/uoe-fff041320.phpews
WWT Slimbridge: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WWT_Slimbridge
Example sources of background information on flamingos:


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