WWT research focus on birds behaving badly

Previously unrecorded ‘bad’ behaviour in flamingos has been spotted during a long-term research project at WWT Slimbridge Wetland Centre in Gloucestershire.

For the first time, individuals in a flock of water birds have been observed purposely barging into another bird rather than walking around it.

This is different to standard ‘pecking order’ confrontations where birds compete for food. The victim is doing nothing so there would seem little immediate point in using energy and risking injury by giving it an unprovoked shove.

The behavioural research is centred at Slimbridge because the resident flamingo flocks are large enough to reflect wild flock behaviours, but not too large to not to be able to keep track of individuals.

The research has already discovered other new behaviours, including that flamingo flocks develop social networks, comparable to Facebook, with some gregarious individuals acting as links between different social groups.

Paul Rose, a PhD student at Exeter University who is conducting research at WWT, said:

“Barging is very unusual behaviour for a water bird, and something that does not seem to have been studied before. The flamingos are acting like kids in a playground, finding out how much they can get away with, and it could be a way of enforcing the social hierarchy within a flock.”

He added:

“One interesting aspect is that this behaviour is common to all six species of flamingo. The MSc students who do their degree projects here help to collect the data, and we’ve seen the same behaviour in all six species that are resident at Slimbridge.

“I’ve actually witnessed one flamingo barging into another that was fast asleep, standing on one leg, and sending it flying. The next step is to find out whether this is behaviour that’s specific to males, females, young or older birds, and to try to understand what it might mean.”

Paul’s research was published last year in WWT’s scientific publication Wildfowl. He is joint author of the paper ‘Evidence of directed interactions between individuals in captive flamingo flocks’, which appeared in Volume 65 of the academic journal.

Flamingo conservation

Flamingos breed as flocks and WWT’s research aims to gain a greater understanding of the social balance which can affect the well-being of individuals. The captive flamingos at WWT wetland centres which are individually marked, making it possible to keep track of each individual and relate their behaviours to their age, sex and other characteristics. The research will provide information to other zoos to keep their  flamingos happy and healthy which could become important for the survival of the species if wild flamingo populations crash.

Four of the world’s six flamingo species are classed as ‘Vulnerable’ or ‘Near Threatened’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Despite there being almost five million flamingos in the world today, the total number of major flamingo breeding sites, worldwide, is thought to number fewer than 30. Over 75% of the global population of lesser flamingos breeds at just one site in East Africa. Although flamingos are numerous, they are threatened by the loss or degradation of these key sites. The main threats include water abstraction, mining and pollution.

WWT’s flamingos are part of WWT’s wider conservation work to protect these iconic wetland birds:

  • Techniques developed through our work with captive birds are used to benefit wild flamingos, e.g. artificial nest mounds have been used to encourage birds to nest in the wild, marking techniques developed at Slimbridge are now widely used on wild birds, and researchers have gained valuable field skills through working with our expert aviculturists.
  • WWT’s flamingos help to raise awareness of the threats facing wild flamingos, to educate visitors and to inspire them to support our conservation work.
  • WWT are experts in wetland habitat creation. We advise governments and organisations around the world on creating and maintaining wetland habitats in order to halt declining populations of wildlife, including flamingos.
  • WWT is the global co-ordinator of the worldwide Flamingo Specialist Group, a global network of scientists and specialists concerned with the study, monitoring, management and conservation of flamingos. The group actively promotes flamingo research, conservation and education as part of the IUCN Species Survival Commission and Wetlands International Waterbird Network.

You can meet all six flamingo species at WWT Slimbridge Wetland Centre in Gloucestershire, and WWT also has flamingo flocks at WWT Llanelli, Martin Mere and Washington Wetland Centres. Rather than just reading about them, it’s a great way to experience the sight, sound and smell of being near flamingos and hopefully to fall in love with them like we have!