Flamingos are one of the most popular animals exhibited in animal collections. If you’re keen to learn more about them and delve deeper in the ways in which WWT keeps its flamingos then follow Paul's diary up-to-date with all things flamingo. Paul Rose is a PhD student from the University of Exeter’s Centre for Research in Animal Behaviour, currently based in the Conservation Programmes Directorate at WWT, who is investigating the social behaviour of captive flamingo flock
The flamingos and other animals in the living collection at WWT centres are not just housed to look beautiful and be interesting for visitors to see. They play a vitally important role in education and engagement, providing a valuable link to the natural world and a connection with nature that may be hard for many people to achieve for these species out in the wild. WWT centres host many thousands of children and young people on educational visits each year. From toddlers and nursery age children, through primary and secondary pupils, sixth form and college groups, to university degree students and beyond, WWT living collections cement important knowledge about biology, ecology, conservation and environmental science. In this flamingo diary, we will look at what makes the flamingos, and other WWT living collection animals really good for education and engagement. Let's think about what we do with our flamingos, e.g. how they are cared for and what information we collect on them, that makes for good educational activities. For teachers thinking about ways to craft a field trip to WWT or for interested visitors who want to understand more about the flamingos on their next visit, follow my examples for "flamingo education" below! Educating the next generation. A student collecting data on the WWT Slimbridge Chilean flamingos (photo above).We know who our animals areThe flamingos, for example, all wear plastic leg rings so that living collection staff can tell each bird apart. Just the same as the the wild Bewick’s swans are individually identifiable by their bill patterns, and therefore each bird’s life can be mapped out and swan's story told, so the leg rings put on the flamingos in the collection all us to do the same. These data can mean we can manage our flamingo flocks according to the needs of the individual birds and find out how changes to their care are responded to by watching the behaviour of specific flamingos. We've been mapping "flamingo friends" for over ten years now, and we get students involved by teaching them about flamingo social behaviour or by working with them on site as researchers so they can collect such data themselves.Examples of flamingo social networks- an image of the connections between each bird in the flock. The birds are the dots or squares (with their ring codes as labels) and the lines are the relationships between them (photo above). What you can see - Look out for the leg rings on the flamingos on your next visit, you will see they are all different codes. - Spot different flamingo rings and see who-is-who in a flock. - Look for different personalities and behaviours in the flocks as you watch them.Records of what we doWe keep various records of the flamingos that we care for. For example, we keep individual data on the age and sex of the birds, how long they have been at WWT, where they have come from, and who their parents are. We also keep data on the bird’s mass if they have been weighed, as well as other health information such as their body and feather condition. Records of egg development over the course of a flamingo’s 30 day incubation periods are really important for how we breed our birds. Understanding how the egg changes in mass and how to regulate temperature and humidity are essential for ensuring a chick hatches successfully. Records also allow us to trace where birds go between WWT centres and information on the age structure of a flock (how many individuals of either sex are in what age category) means we can manage groups that will be sustainable. We can share our records with students that are learning how to work with zoo animal populations to show how reliable and complete record keeping is essential to animal health and welfare. Recording nest and egg locations is essential data to help with flamingo breeding (photo above). Recording eggs development over time, how much mass is gained/lost and the size of the air space (top of the egg) allows us to produce healthy flamingo chicks (photo above). Example of "flamingo friends" data (bird rings listed on the left hand side and the top row) that how much time flamingos spend together (1= all the time, 0= never seen together), photo above. What you can see Whilst animal records are probably not going to be on show to visitors to the collection at a WWT centre, you can see products of the use of records. Look out for these examples: - The leg rings on the flamingos, as mentioned above, match the bird to its records. - Look out for the signage available at animal enclosures, this provides information about the species we keep and, sometimes, signage explains how they are managed and cared for. - If you see a member of the WWT living collections staff doing their rounds for animal care, they will be collecting data for animal records that will be stored safely away. - Look out for conservation and research scientists working in the living collection. Again, they will be collecting data on the animals to continually improve animal care. An example of this would be the “nocturnal flamingos” sign that advertises WWT’s award winning night-time flamingo research on the Andean Flamingo House at WWT Slimbridge.Measuring animal behaviourObservations of the flamingos helps us calculate how much time they spend on different activities. The important behaviours for a flamingo to perform are feeding and foraging, preening, resting, socialising and courtship or nesting. We check the time-activity (how much time per behaviour?) of our flamingos by recording the time spent on these important behaviours in a systematic manner. This method of behavioural recording helps us further understand animal welfare, and it’s not just special to the flamingos, we do this across a range of different species. We've even looked at the flamingos overnight, to see what they get up to when their keepers go home. The sign on the WWT Slimbridge Andean Flamingo House that explains the nocturnal flamingo research (photo above). Our flamingos are excellent tools for education sessions where WWT staff train students in how to recognise and record behaviour. Because the flamingos are obvious to see, and easy to follow, they are a great introduction to how to be an animal behaviour scientist. What you can see - Identify how many different types of behaviour you can see a flamingo in a flock performing - Look and see which behaviours are performed for the longest amount of time, whilst you are watching them - Where do the birds perform their different behaviours? Are there some areas of their enclosures that they like to use for a specific activity? - Do the flock all perform the same activity at the same time, or are individuals different?Where do the flamingos like to be?Alongside of recording activity patterns, we can also measure how the flamingos use the space provided to them in their enclosure. We can divide up an enclosure into different sections based on the physical features of the enclosure, for example the flamingo’s house, their pool, any islands or nesting areas, and so on. Counting where birds are, or timing how long they stay in each area, tells WWT staff which sections of the enclosure the birds like (and are good for them) and which areas they don’t use (and therefore might need adapting or improving). Methods for evaluating enclosure use in a systematic and structured manner are taught to students that come to WWT on field trips or for workshops to explain why understanding how animals use their space is important to improving animal care. Spot the enclosure usage... where are the flamingos and why are they there? Photo above.What you can see - Can you see spot different areas of an enclosure that have been designed for particular species? - How would you describe the different areas of a flamingo enclosure? - Look out for where the birds like to be at different times of the day and in different seasons- they will change where the are with season. Anatomy and physiology, form and function The whole range of species at WWT means teaching all about anatomy (the different organ systems and structures of the body) and physiology (the reactions and processes inside the body that keep it working) is really engaging. Different species of animals have evolved different characteristics to help them survive in their environments. We can illustrate and help students identify common features and different features that species possess to aid survival in a habitat. For example, flamingos have webbed feet, just like ducks, geese and swans. This shared, common, feature across species is useful to all of them because they all live in and move through wetlands. Flamingos have a very specific bill shape that is different to ducks, geese and swans. This specific feature allows the flamingo to collect food effectively, saving energy and avoiding competition with other animals for the type of food that it likes to eat. We can compare different species at close quarters and allow students the chance of spotting common or specific characteristics of anatomy and physiology so they can learn all about evolution. The bill of a lesser flamingo. The unique anatomy of a flamingo's bill means it gains advantages over other species in its habitat (photo above). Chilean flamingo filtering. This action can only occur because of the form and function of the flamingo's bill and tongue (photo above). Similar features! Ducks and flamingos can paddle and up-end to find foot. A feature that is helpful across species in the same environment will be possessed by all species (photo above). What you can see - Can you spot features on the flamingos that are common to other birds? - Can you look out for features of the flamingos that make them unique compared to other birds? - Can you find five features of a bird that make it adapted to a wetland way of life? - Do you, as a human being, share any common anatomy with any of the animals in the WWT collection? Conservation biology All of the species housed in the WWT living collection are important for conservation. Be that as effective ambassadors for telling a story about the wild counterparts of a species, or because we are breeding the species to aid conservation work in other centres like WWT or for reintroduction into the wild. Conservation for the flamingos means breeding them at WWT Slimbridge, Martin Mere, Washington and Llanelli to ensure we have sustainable flocks for the future. It also means researching and studying them so we know what they need to remain healthy under our care. Conservation impact can be measured by seeing how many people are familiar with the flamingo’s story (the threats it faces in the wild, the habitats that need protection, and its long-term future). The flamingos, and other species in the living collection, are the best link between wetland conservation in the real world and why it is important because they represent the species and habitats being conserved. Students can see examples of the individual animals involved in conservation activities and this is really engaging and inspiring. What you can do - Look out for the status of a species in the wild by reading the signs at each enclosure. It will tell you how safe or threatened they are. - Read all about the threats that species face in the wild on the enclosure signs. - Look out for breeding activities, e.g. flamingos on nests or with chicks. I hope this has shown that the flamingos are not just there to be pretty in pink, but they are vital tools that WWT staff use for educational purposes, for teaching groups of different ages and educational levels, and for wider engagement with wetland issues. By connecting people with nature through the animals in the collection, we can hopefully inspire much more care about wildlife and wetlands in the future.
WWT has a long standing research theme investigating the social lives of the flamingos in our care. Across all six species, we have collected data on their likes and dislikes, their personalities and differences in activity. We have looked at how colour, flock size and even the different ways that they feed on their flamingo influence their social behaviour. The “flamingo friends” project, or more professionally The Flamingo Welfare & Behaviour Project started in 2012 as a collaboration between the Centre for Research in Animal Behaviour in the Psychology Department of the University of Exeter and WWT. Flamingos are one of the world’s most popular zoo animals and a familiar, instantly recognisable bird to many. However in spite of this star quality, many aspects of the flamingo’s biology and their lives in the wild remained poorly understood. Why, for example, do they live in such huge flocks? Is this because of environmental limitations? They have to all be in the same place because that is the only location for the right feeding and breeding resources? Is it because they feel safer when they live in big flocks? Is it because they enjoy each other’s company and have an underlying psychological need to live with other birds? We’ve also looked at their behaviour across the full 24hour period. What do they get up to overnight when the watchful eyes of their keepers and the visiting public have all gone home? It turns out that flamingos are really rather busy when the sun goes down, with lots of feeding and foraging occurring later in the evening and in the hour of the early morning too. This first piece of research used the greater flamingo flock at WWT Slimbridge and we have rolled this out to other species too- look after for results in the future! Some of the flamingo’s most characteristic and eye-catching behaviours are their courtship displays. The flock-wide dance moves that birds use to attract a mate. Whilst the mechanism (i.e. the factors from the environment that mean birds display at specific times) for the causation (how the display starts) and control (how long it goes on for and why it occurs) are understood, the actual choosing of one flamingo by another – who wants to breed with whom because of what characteristics and the actual selection of each other from all of the dancing birds in the group – is unknown. Ten years later we are trying to understand some of these “unknowns” and for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic, we have MSc students back at Slimbridge collecting behavioural data on the animals in the living collection. MSc Animal Behaviour student Deeksha is spending her spring and summer observing the lesser and Andean flamingos, recording who is spending time with whom to see the same partnerships and affiliations recorded in 2012 still hold true in 2022. She is also collecting information on the bird’s characteristics too; for example their plumage colour, their personality and their involvement in any courtship display. This might give us an idea of why some birds like to be the best of friends and why they keep themselves apart from other birds in their flock. It is likely that there are many reasons as to why the flamingos choose who to spend time with so specifically. And comparison of these two species is interesting because of their different ecologies. They both now live in the same environment (the lesser flamingos moved in with the Andean flamingos in the autumn of 2021) and so we can control for any influence of environment on social choice (i.e. it’s the same for all birds so any difference in housing and how this impacts on flamingo friends can be ruled out). In the wild, the lesser flamingo lives in enormous flocks – in some parts of its wild range these flocks can be over one million birds – whereas the Andean flamingo lives in smaller groups, still of many individual flamingos but smaller when compared to the lesser flamingo. Does this difference in ecology affect their predisposition for being friends with other birds? From the data that was gathered back in 2012, the lesser flamingo flock has the weakest pattern of “best friends” within the group. Out of each flock studied, these flamingos were the most likely to hang out without whoever was nearby. Contrastingly, individual Andean flamingos were really keen to spend time with other specific birds in their flock – sometimes this was over 90% of a bird’s time was spent with one other flamingo – so it will be interesting to see what remains true today. The Andean flamingos and the lesser flamingos have also lived in their respective groups for a long time. The lesser flamingos arrived in 1961 and the Andean flamingos from 1962. And whilst there have been a few additions and losses over the years, these flocks have remained relatively stable. They are likely to be very familiar with the other birds around them. The biggest adjustment to their social environment is probably the housing of both of these species together in the same enclosure. Not that change is new to these flamingos. The Andean flamingos have lived with the Chilean flamingos in the past, and the lesser flamingos have moved house several times. They also use to live in the greater flamingo enclosure in the summer, before this was altered to create Flamingo Lagoon. Find out later this year, in a future Flamingo Diary piece, once Deeksha has completed her studies and gathered all of the results from her observations, what flamingo friends looks like ten years later. And potentially, what characteristics birds use to determine who likes to be friends with whom.
International Flamingo Day (IFD) occurs each year on 26th April. It is a day set up by the IUCN Flamingo Specialist Group (FSG) to celebrate the six amazing species of flamingo and their wonderful wetland homes. Of these six species, four are of conservation importance (three - the Chilean, puna and lesser flamingos - are near threatened and one - the Andean flamingo - is vulnerable to extinction). The wetlands that flamingo live within are not commonly found habitats and occur in only a select few places around the world. These wetlands can be some of the most challenging of environments for animals to live in. The theme of IFD this year is Tough Birds, Fragile Homes, to identify and explain the unique adaptations of the birds themselves and the characteristics of the amazing wetlands that they live within. Flamingos have very specific needs when it comes to suitable habitats, and these habitats vary in characteristics depending on where in the world they are found and the species of flamingo that uses them. They like wide, open spaces that allow many birds to feed together but to still have enough room for individual flamingos to be distanced from each other. They like their friends but they need their own space too!They like to be undisturbed but will be found in areas around human dwellings and activities if these habitats are good feeding patches.They try to avoid competition with other species, but they can be found in wetlands that are full of biodiversity (for example Lake Nakuru in Kenya). They can favour wetlands that are remote and inaccessible, but these wetlands can contain valuable resources that humans wish to extract. They can occur at the tops of mountains or at sea level. They can be freezing cold water or water at near to boiling point. These wetlands are generally salty or have a very alkaline (caustic) pH. You can see some examples of wetlands that flamingos are found in in the illustration below. Some species of flamingo, such as the Andean, Chilean and puna (James’s) flamingo are found at high elevations in the salt flats and soda lakes of the Andes Mountains. These birds can range up to elevations of 4500m during the breeding season. Caribbean flamingo and greater flamingo are birds of lowland wetlands, and especially coastal regions. This can put them into conflict with development and human activities that are changing coastlines and reclaiming wetlands areas. The lesser flamingo is perhaps the most specialised in its habitat requirements. Aside from a small population in India, this is a bird renown for its love of the East African soda lakes where it wades around in water that can be up to pH 10.5 (very highly alkaline). The lesser flamingo selects these caustic water bodies as they are full of microscopic plant and algae materials (called cyanobacteria) that it feeds upon and gains its bright pink and red plumage colours. The habitat specialism of the lesser flamingo puts it very strongly at risk from human and climatic disturbance to these wetlands as it has little other options to move to if they disappear or become degraded (and not useful for the birds). You can see the characteristics of different flamingo wetlands, and images of what these wetlands look like in the illustration below. The high Andes flamingos are also at risk of declining populations if their habitat changes. Mining for lithium, an element found in the volcanic soils of the flamingo’s wetlands, degrades the habitat and reduces water level. The batteries of electronic devices, such as tablets and mobile phone, contain lithium and therefore the greater the need to extract, then the more harm to the birds. These high mountain flamingos are pressured by climatic change to. As temperatures warm and weather patterns become more instable, the seasonal cycles of flooding that flamingos rely on to create the best conditions for breeding become more unreliable. Changes to water levels and the amount of permanent water also impacts on feeding areas and therefore squeezes the available habitat that flamingos use for finding something to eat. So whilst these wetlands might sound tough, they are actually fragile because of their specific water chemistry or climatic conditions or wider environment that they are found within. It is is the flamingo that is tough to have evolved to survive and thrive within them. Flamingos, in biological terms, can be considered extremophiles. That means a species of animal adapted to extreme conditions where few other species are capable of living. Flamingos have evolved for these niches to avoid competition for feeding and nesting areas. Their complex way of feeding and their need to all nest at the same time restricts where flamingos are able to live.You can see the different adaptations (features that flamingos have evolved) for these extreme wetlands in the diagram below. Being extremophiles means that flamingos can cope with exposure to direct sunlight and high levels of UV, as well as extreme heat and extreme cold. Some species, such as the Andean and puna flamingos, have to survive when the water in their mountain lakes freezes. Flamingos can travel for long distances between suitable areas for feeding and breeding- but this strategy only works when there are a number of safe havens that they can rely on moving between. Other species of wetland animal that live alongside of the flamingos in their inhospitable wetlands can also be considered extremophiles, for example some species of cichlid (a type of fish) that have evolved to live in the East African soda lakes. You can see a short video of these fish below (they are not as brightly coloured as the flamingos!). So when you're on your next visit to one of the WWT centres that house flamingos (Slimbridge, Martin Mere, Llanelli and Washington) see if you can spot some of the unique adaptations that flamingos have to their extreme yet fragile wetland homes. Thank you for your support of WWT and your support of the conservation work of these amazing creatures and the incredible habitats they rely on.
It's been a tumultuous few months (and couple of years to be fair!) for the living collections at WWT, what with a global pandemic and a UK-wide Avian Influenza restrictions for their dedicated living collections keepers to contend with, but as spring firmly beds in things are looking brighter. And so it is time to start writing updates on the fabulous flamingos and what they have been up to once again. Welcome to the first Flamingo Diary of 2022!Regular visitors to WWT Slimbridge and the other WWT sites that house flamingos (Llanelli, Martin Mere and Washington) will know that birds are being kept safe in their indoor houses as the Avian Influenza (AI) protocol dictates. However, with the improved weather and reduced risk of AI, some flocks have been allowed outside in a controlled and monitored way to stretch their legs, get some exercise and enjoy the sunshine. Don't be surprised if the flamingos are still inside on your next visit, it all depends on the weather conditions and assessed risk if they are in their enclosures. The flamingo houses at WWT are spacious and expansive to allow birds the freedom to move around and behave normally- in fact, the flamingos often finish the winter looking plumper and pinker from being inside than when they first went indoors! You can see how beautiful they look in this photo of the WWT Slimbridge Chilean flamingos below. Just check out that glorious salmon pink and tangerine! When viewing the flamingos in their houses it is always best:- To move quietly and slowly up to the window.- To not run towards the birds. You will see more if you let them see you coming.- To never bang on the glass or try to get the birds to move. - To always remember that this is the birds' home and we should be respectful of their space.- To be patient and observe... you will see more if you linger for longer. Spot the head-flagging in the photo above... Dancing doesn't stop even though the birds are indoors. The WWT flamingo houses are big enough for these important behaviours to continue. Being patient, quiet and respectful is especially important at the moment as there have been some flamingo moves at WWT Slimbridge. The bright red flock of Caribbean flamingos now live in the old Lesser Flamingo Pen (opposite the greater flamingo flock) with the lesser flamingos moving into the Andean Flamingo Pen. The old Caribbean Flamingo House is in need of structural repairs, so watch this space for future developments. The Caribbean flamingos have settled in well to the former lesser flamingo house. This was, up until summer 2012, the home of the WWT Slimbridge greater flamingo flock, so it's a useful set-up for their bright pink relatives of a very similar size and shape. It's no bother for the lesser flamingos to live with the Andean flamingos and Mr James (yes, he is still going strong!) as these species both inhabit a similar niche in the wild (even though they are on different continents) and the gentle nature of the Andean flamingos means they are no bother to their smaller cousins. If you are lucky to visit on a day when the flamingos are out and about, then you are in for a treat as they really do look in their pinkest best. You can see some examples of the birds enjoying the March sunshine in the photos below. As pink as pink can be. The colours of the Andean flamingos are truly spectacular at the moment. The flamingos always look at their best during this time of the year. As they go into summer and the breeding season, the pink pigments in their feathers fade. They become a vivid pink at the next moult after summer. The photo below shows the Andean and lesser flamingos on their first "exercise day" (photo provided by Living Collections deputy manager Phoebe Vaughan). And below are the Chilean flamingos enjoying a paddle and a splash around. Photo again provided by Phoebe Vaughan.This year, 2022, is also ten years since the "flamingo friends" research project started at WWT Slimbridge (and more on this in a future blog post), but it's great to see the birds still forming their partnerships and choosing who to hang around with. The Andean flamingos especially, always very particular when it comes to sharing their time with someone else, have been filtering together in their little friendship groups.Even Mr James has been more sociable than normal! Here he is (bird on the far left) snoozing with some pals in the spring sunshine. It's testament to the hard work and dedication of flamingo keeper Phil, and living collections managers Phoebe and Simon, plus all of the other team members involved in bird care, that these grand old ladies and gentlemen are still with us through the trials and tribulations of Covid-19 and AI restrictions. I will leave you with a video of the flirty Chilean flamingos and their wonderful head-flagging behaviour. See if you can spot signs of (flamingo) spring on your next visit!
What is animal welfare? And how do we measure it? Why is WWT's bird welfare award winning. Find out more in this issue of the Flamingo Diary.
This year, 2021, is a special year for the flamingos (and the people that love and look after them) at WWT as it marks the 60th anniversary of these ever-popular members of the living collections being cared for by WWT. Back in 1961, three pioneer groups of three species arrived at WWT Slimbridge, and now WWT has the most complete collection of this type of bird to be seen anywhere in the world. The first flamingo species to arrive at WWT Slimbridge was imported in 1961 at the request of WWT’s founder, Sir Peter Scott, and these were 12 Chileans flamingos. These birds were followed shortly after by 13 greater and nine lesser flamingos in that same year. Today, flamingos of all six species can be seen across four WWT centres. Flocks of flamingos were first established at WWT Martin Mere in 1976 (the centre opened in 1974), at WWT Washington in 1986 (the centre opened in 1975) and at WWT Llanelli at its opening in 1991. WWT's very first flamingos (photo taken from the 13th Annual Report of The Wildfowl Trust). A small flock of Chilean flamingos that quickly become one of the largest groups of these birds to be ever seen outside of their home range.Caribbean flamingos arrived in 1962 and in 1965 the first examples of the rare and relatively unknown Andean and James’s flamingos. By 1965, Slimbridge housed well over 100 flamingos, including a huge flock (for the time) of 58 Chilean flamingos. The most flamingos ever kept in one place in the UK. Greater and lesser flamingos soon followed the Chilean flamingos. These are WWT's first greater flamingos. Photo taken from the 13th Annual Report of The Wildfowl Trust.And WWT's pioneering lesser flamingos. Pictured having settled into their enclosure after being relocated to the Slimbridge Wildfowl Trust. Photo taken from the 13th Annual Report of The Wildfowl Trust.Sir Peter Scott was a keen ornithologist and he was interested in the evolutionary relationships (i.e. the family tree of different species of birds and which species are most closely related to whom) of the different species of birds that he wished to exhibit in his wildfowl collection. Peter Scott did research into the flamingos and the wildfowl and he concluded that the flamingos, based on their webbed feet, way of life, affinity to water and calls they made, were very similar to the ducks, geese and swans. And so he needed to exhibit them at Slimbridge to give the fullest picture to his visitors of what the wildfowl are and how they have evolved. Sir Peter Scott wanted to display all six kinds of flamingo because of their (thought at the time) evolutionary links to the ducks, geese and swans. This image, taken from the 1987 Slimbridge guidebook shows his drawing of the birds and explains why he wanted to have them in his collections. Whilst we now know that flamingos are not that closely related to ducks, we still have them at WWT because of the amazing stories they tell of the unique wetlands that they make their homes, and how vividly they can promote wetlands and wetland wildlife to WWT’s visitors (just as Peter Scott hoped for). You can still spot the close relatives of flamingos on your next visit to WWT… and in fact in your back garden. Grebes are the wetland birds closely related to flamingos. And the other are the pigeons (believe it or not!). How the Chilean flamingo flock had grown! Do you recognise the South American Pen? This photo, from 1965 looks remarkably similar to the enclosure that these birds still live in today. I love the fact that the birds in this photo are, for the most part, still living their lives at WWT Slimbridge. Photo taken from the 1965-1966 Annual Report of The Wildfowl Trust. Flamingos are long-lived birds and because of the good care they received, you can still see some of these original, pioneer flamingos at WWT on your next visit. Many of the lesser flamingos and Chilean flamingos are from 1961, and our special group of 19 greater flamingos that date from 1956 are still going strong in Flamingo Lagoon. Generally (in the breeding season), the pinkest and brightest birds are likely to be some of the oldest as carotenoid (what provides their pink colour) accumulates within the flamingo over its lifetime. Check for bright legs and bright beaks- these are parts of the flamingo that generally remain brightest all year around. Size counts as well; the tallest of tall males, for examples, are likely to be some of the oldest birds. Spot some of our oldest birds. Here are greater flamingos GPS and HLH, two males from 1956! And this is HPI, a female from 1956. Alive and well in the 21st Century. Sir Peter Scott was passionate about flamingo conservation. He recognised the unique features of these birds, such as how they collect their food and the importance of their beautiful courtship dances, and why that made them vulnerable to environmental changes and human disturbances (way before many others had the same thoughts). He also knew that living collections and zoological organisations had a strong role to play in conserving flamingos. Building sustainable flocks in safe places that people could come and enjoy, and that researchers could study and help better understand the needs of the flamingo in the wild (what should be protected and why?). As a result of this conservation focus, Peter Scott organised the first international flamingo symposium, held at WWT Slimbridge, in 1973. The output from this symposium was published in a book “The flamingos” in 1975 that is still considered an authority text on these birds to this day. More output from this symposium was increased collaboration in the zoological community to build bigger flocks to hope that breeding of all species would become more common. For example, London and Copenhagen Zoos swapped their handful of James’s and Andean flamingos into the Slimbridge flock, and in exchange Slimbridge provided London Zoo with Chilean flamingos to increase the size of the group in Regent’s Park. Cooperation for conservation at the heart of WWT’s mission, then and now. The WWT Slimbridge Chilean flamingos in June 2021. Some of these birds will be the 1961 originals. And they are still very much "in the pink"! This conservation focus has also allowed WWT to build flocks of birds at its different centres without needing to take flamingos from the wild. Greater flamingos were first sent from Slimbridge to start a new flock at WWT Martin Mere in the 1980s. All of these were WWT-hatched birds. More recently, when WWT Llanelli opened it doors to the public, the beautiful Caribbean flamingo flock at the centre are also all Slimbridge-hatched birds. Over these past 60 years of flamingo care, WWT has seen numerous “firsts” in flamingo keeping and breeding. Including, the first UK breeding of Caribbean flamingos in 1968 (and potentially of the very first flamingo chicks ever to be reared in the UK), followed by the first UK breeding of Chilean flamingos in 1969 and, in that same year, the first time that Andean flamingo had successfully nested in a zoological collection anywhere in the world. WWT's first ever flamingo chick! These Caribbean flamingos still live in (what was called) the Orchard Pen at WWT Slimbridge. Photo taken from the 1969 Annual Report of The Wildfowl Trust.Back to 2021, and flamingos are still at the heart of what WWT is all about. They are one of the most popular of animals to see at the wetland centres that house them and WWT is the home of the IUCN Flamingo Specialist Group, the international body that coordinates flamingo conservation and management around the world. With three species (Chilean, James’s and lesser) listed as Near Threatened and the Andean flamingo listed as Vulnerable on the global Red List of threatened species in need of conservation action, this flamingo focus is as important today as it was 60 year ago. The WWT Slimbridge lesser flamingos in June 2021. These birds are some of our longest standing residents at WWT and this flocks is made up of many of the first flamingos to be ever housed by WWT. I will leave you with some of my own photos, taken when I was a child on family visits to Slimbridge back in the late '80s, so you can get a sense of the flamingo history that WWT is full of. Enjoy!The Andean flamingos got the free-run of the South American Pen, with the small flock of James's flamingos and the Chilean flamingos at the end of the '80s/start of the '90s. This scene was repeated from 2008 to 2013 when, once again, the Andean flamingo lived in "South America". The original idea behind this multi-bird mix was to encourage breeding of the James's flamingos by recreating a larger mixed species flock that this species is known to breed in in the wild. Sadly, it was not successful.Spot the six James's flamingos! One is just peeking in on the left. Back before Mr James was our celebrity bird, there was a small flock of this unusual flamingo that lived in the Andean Flamingo Pen. Peter Scott imported James's flamingos several times in the 1960s, and donations of birds from other zoos from the 1970s to the 1980s was performed to try and encourage breeding. We now know that this lovely flamingo is best conserved out in the wilds of the Andes Mountains. A glimpse inside the Caribbean Flamingo House. There used to be a viewing platform, at the far end of the house, that allowed visitors to observe the birds when they were housed indoors. Here you can see a mixture of young birds (grey plumage) and white birds (parents of that year). Clearly indicating a successful breeding season!Several young Chilean flamingos in the old Lesser Flamingo House. This would be in the part of the Grounds now occupied by the "Back from the Brink" exhibit (that houses the water voles and harvest mice). The lesser flamingos would spend the summer in the main African Pen (now Flamingo Lagoon) and their house could then be used as a nursery space. The greater flamingos lived in what is now the current Lesser Flamingo Pen.And another view of the South American Pen, which the huge colony of Chilean flamingos. The birds are nesting in the long island that is in the centre of their pond. This island is still present but has been left to become filled with wetland plants, with the flamingos now nesting on the bank at the back of their pen. If you look to the left you can see some of the old concrete nests mounds that used to be built to encourage the flamingos to breed in a specific area (you can also see that this didn't necessarily work!). We now know that flamingos are best encouraged to nest by providing a safe and secure environment with lots of clean, dry sand and some wet mud, all ready for them to construct their nests.
Here at WWT we need no excuse to talk about how amazing flamingos are and why we love them so much. But we have an extra good reason to do this in April... International Flamingo Day! This day is a chance to celebrate and appreciate the amazing birds that the flamingos are and the remarkable wetlands that they occur in around the world.International Flamingo Day (IFD) was started in 2020 by the Flamingo Specialist Group of the IUCN and is hosted on 26th April which is the birthday of John James Audubon, the famous American painter and ornithologist who produced a remarkable and eye-catching life-sized picture of the American (Caribbean) flamingo for the now iconic book, “The Birds of America”. The logo for IFD was designed around this iconic picture by a WWT Slimbridge member of staff’s young son :-) WWT is the home of the Flamingo Specialist Group and four WWT centres house flamingos. At WWT Slimbridge you can enjoy and compare all six. From the tiniest lesser flamingo, the rarest Andean flamingos and of course our pink bird celebrity, Mr James the puna flamingo. WWT Llanelli has Caribbean flamingos, beautiful, bright pink birds. WWT Martin Mere and WWT Washington have Chilean flamingos, with their characteristic salmon pink feathers and highlighter pink joints. WWT Martin Mere has greater flamingos too, the largest of all species. Plenty of flamingo flamboyance to be found for all! The aim of IFD 2021 is to showcase the differences of the six flamingo species. Many people think a flamingo is a flamingo is a flamingo, but the six species have specific individual features even though they share family resemblances. Here’s our handy “spotter guide” for working out what makes a flamingo unique.
Why are flamingos such devoted mothers? What does it take to raise a baby flamingo to adulthood? And why have the parenting behaviours of flamingos made them see in the same way as woodpeckers do? Find out more.
Welcome to the New Year flamingo fans. And another round of lockdown. For the WWT flamingos, like many birds up and down the country, it’s been lockdown for them too as the Avian Influenza outbreak means that we have to keep our birds safely inside out of harm’s way. The flamingos don’t generally mind being inside. In the winter, the birds are often housed indoors when there is bad weather and the large, heated houses that we have at WWT Slimbridge, and at the other WWT centres, that keep flamingos are ideal for keeping the birds snug, comfortable and out of the elements. I love the sound in this video of the greater flamingo flock inside their enormous house. It's deafening and Phoebe and the living collections team wear ear protectors when they go and feed the birds and clean the house. With this many flamingos, it's a real wall of sound. But it also tells Phoebe and her colleagues that the birds are happy and well because this noisy group are doing their courtship dancing. I’m no doubt sure that many of you are missing your favourite birds and you’d like to be able to visit them to see what they are up to. In this first flamingo diary of 2021, here is an update on some firm favourites and how they are being cared for. Some of the kind things that the living collections team have to consider when the flamingos are kept inside are:- Sand and rubber matting for healthy feet- Clean water for preening and bathing- Keeping the birds out of their pool water and in fresh water, if needed, to minimise disease risk- Easy access to food for all birds in the group- Lighting to resemble the "outside world"- Heating for the species that have a tendency to feel the cold- Space for everyone to be able to mix with their friends and avoid those they don't like as much.Remember, if you are missing the WWT flamingos, then the flamingo adoption can bring you a little bit closer to these wonderful birds and help support their care over this difficult period.In the photo below you can see the WWT Slimbridge Caribbean flamingo house and the flock outside, when conditions are normal.All of the flamingo houses have big, wide doors that allow the birds to move in and out of the house as a flock. Nobody gets left behind and nobody needs to panic because they can all travel with their friends. The houses have various layers of matting to keep the flamingo's feet healthy and sometimes sand too, if it's best for that species. Natural and artificial lighting mimic the normal daily cycle of light that the flamingos would experience if they were outside. And all flocks have pools inside their houses so they can maintain their beautiful feathers. Feather condition is really important because at this time of the year, in autumn and in winter, the flamingos are often moulting through from their worn out feathers from after the breeding season into a new set of bright pink feathers ready for their courtship displays.This photo shows the beautiful colours of a Chilean flamingo, that are freshly moulted through, and ready for the next breeding season in the coming summer. The birds are indoors but they still go through their normal activities. And here are two lesser flamingos, with their characteristic bright red scapular feathers (the long drooping feathers over their wings) that are a sign of an upcoming breeding season. It's important to give the flamingos all of the things they need to remain in tip-top condition when they are inside as this is a critical time of the year for them to prepare for nesting in the summer. Here's another nice example of the behaviour of the birds being the same inside as they are outside. This is the lesser flamingo flock and you can hear the contact calls that are being exchanged between individuals in the flock. These whistles and grunts are asking whether or not other birds fancy starting some courtship dancing. Only when everyone feels that the time is right will the courtship display start.Over the past couple of years, new lighting has been installed into the houses of the lesser and Caribbean flamingos at WWT Slimbridge to provide a light spectrum that is more natural and more similar to what the birds would experience in their natural habitats. Investing in the indoor housing is crucial and pays off at times like what we are currently living through, when birds are spending longer periods indoors.Here you can see the heaters used for the Andean flamingos and Mr James. Even though these species come from the chilly heights of the Andes Mountains in South America, its good to give them a bit of extra warmth in winter. As these birds are getting older, it helps keep them in good condition and means they don't need to expend lots of their own energy on keeping themselves warm. You can also see in this photo the importance of space. I am, of course, interested in flamingo friendships, and you can see this nicely illustrated here: the flamingos have plenty of room to stand with whom they would like and avoid those they don't want to be with. All birds can come out of the water and everyone has room to rest and preen in peace. As flamingos are so specific about who they like to be with, it's key to include this space within their housing. And here is the same for the lesser flamingo flock too. This photo is from a previous winter to give you an idea of their management. You can see the pile of sand that has been provided for the birds. Excellent for feet, excellent for enrichment too (giving the birds extra things to do) and it helps to encourage breeding activities. The lesser flamingos are also a species that likes to perform courtship display when inside, so these extra features (sand, heating, lighting) give the birds the opportunities to express these natural breeding activities which is great for their wellbeing. Here are some of the lesser flamingos playing around with the sand they have been provided with. You can see the deep pink colour of the birds, which is an indication that they are fit and well, and the fact that they have energy to spare to scrap around to play with nest mounds means they are being well looked after. Of course it is extra work for Phoebe and the living collections team at WWT Slimbridge, and for the flamingo keepers at WWT Martin Mere, Washington and Llanelli too, as cleaning happens more regularly and feeding areas have to be scrubbed and filled with fresh water. You can see the cleaning of the Slimbridge Chilean flamingo house here whilst the birds are indoors. The flamingos can be kept out of their pool water and in separate, biosecure, mains water if needed to keep them extra safe over winter if required. But the effort is worth it when the flamingos can be eventually let out (let's hope that this is sooner rather than later) as they will be in their pinkest best and looking fantastic for the breeding season ahead. And fingers crossed that it won't be long before you can come and see them in person too!
Twenty-twenty. It's finally drawing to a close. Even though many parts of the world ground to a halt due to the pandemic, looking after the flamingos at WWT continued as normal. So what have we learned about the pink birds in a year of pandemic?
How are flamingos adapted for their wetland habitats? What can you spot on your next visit to your local WWT flamingo flock that shows how these birds are wetland specialists?
Why is sunshine so important to flamingo behaviour? Find out more about how the sun brings out a range of flamingo feeding forays and lets them enjoy themselves just that extra bit more...
We've seen some mini heatwaves across the UK lately and the warm weather brings new challenges for the living collections teams at WWT centres and how they care for their animals. In this flamingo blog, let's take a quick look at how the flamingos are managed in the summertime to ensure they don't turn a really hot pink. Lesser and greater flamingos in their natural habitat in the Rift Valley in Tanzania (above). Wide open spaces, shallow soda lakes whose caustic waters are filled with the algae and crustaceans that these birds thrive on. And look on the land! These wetlands are found in incredibly biodiverse regions of the world!Flamingos are well adapted to extreme environments. They naturally occur in very specialised wetlands that are either incredibly salty or incredibly alkaline in pH. The lakes and saline lagoons that flamingos are generally found in occur in tropical and temperate parts of the world, where the weather can get very hot and sunny. These wetlands offer little in the way of shade or shelter and so the flamingos are exposed to the full effects of the prevailing weather conditions and temperatures. This means that the pink birds have to be tough to withstand some very harsh conditions. Even though species that live at high altitudes, like the Andean and James's flamingos, fact extremes of temperature change and dazzling levels of UV light. So bright sunshine is something flamingos have evolved to cope with. This Andean flamingo (above) is filtering for algae and microscopic aquatic plant material, just like it would in the wild. Andean flamingos occur in high altitude saline lagoons where the harsh water conditions favour the growth of algae that turns their feathers pink. As these lagoons are really exposed, they cope well with bright sunlight.Some flamingo species, like the lesser flamingo, flounce around in the East African soda lakes where the water pH is over 10 (that's very alkaline- so alkaline it will severely burn human skin), where the lakes are fed by volcanic hot springs (near boiling temperature water) and the normal water temperature of the lake is around 40 to 60 degrees C. Adding on to that is the fact that these flamingos are gathering at these inhospitable wetlands to feed on blooms of poisonous blue-green algae, you get the picture that the flamingo is a very tough cookie. So tough in fact that we can call them extremeophiles. Organisms adapted to living in conditions where it looks impossible for life to be sustained. A bathing lesser flamingo (above) at WWT Slimbridge. Lesser flamingos spend a lot of time preening their feathers; in the wild this is an evolutionary adaptation to keeping their plumage free from salt crystals that form on their feathers because of the caustic soda that is dissolved in the lakes they live in. To remove these crystals, lesser flamingos have to bath in hot springs that contain fresher (but near boiling!) water around the edges of the lake. They clearly don't mind a prolonged spell in the hot tub! Let's translate this ecological information (i.e. what we know about the birds in the wild) in the care of captive flamingos, like those you can see at WWT Slimbridge, WWT Llanelli, WWT Martin Mere and WWT Washington.Flamingos cope with the heat and direct sunshine. So long as they have access to clean water for bathing, they can regulate their own temperature when it gets hot. In the wild, you will see flamingos standing out in the open, not phased, in the middle of the day baking in the midday sun. Clean and well maintained plumage allows flamingos to reflect the heat of direct sunlight and the countercurrent system in their legs (blood flow from and to the body exchanges heat) allows the birds to regulate a consistent body temperature by cooling their blood. So priority number 1 in the summer, for the living collections team, is to keep the water flowing between the bird's enclosures. Lots of waterbirds have a countercurrent system in their legs, ducks, geese, storks, cranes, herons, as well as flamingos, and you can see how this works in the diagram below. The photo below will show you some of the behaviours that you can look out in warmer weather, when flamingos are keeping themselves cool. Remember, in the wild they don't have shade in the habitats they exist in, so they rely on behavioural mechanisms to cool down. Lesser flamingos (above photo) on a warm day. Birds will sit on their "haunches" (the bird with ring code LFV) or stand on one leg (ring code LHA) and rest or sleep. If it's super hot, then flamingos will sit down. Especially in the zoo environment where they feel safe and are protected from predators, but also in the wild too when they can sit and rest on islands in the middle of a wetland. Mr James in the classic one leg flamingo pose. Why? Of all of the theories, the most credible (and most relevant to flamingos in hot weather) is that it saves energy. In fact, a flamingo on one leg can be more stable, when resting, than a flamingo on two legs. A bird locks its leg muscles in place so that it uses no energy to remain upright. This is important in hot weather when the bird does not want to expend energy on balance as this energy expenditure will warm it up.Flowing water contains more oxygen and therefore is healthier and can support more underwater life. This means the natural systems present in a wetland ecosystem- bacteria, algae, plants, insects, fish- all work together to keep the water fresh and clean. Which is great news for all of the birds in the living collections. They can preen and bathe naturally, maintaining excellent feather condition and keeping themselves relaxed in the hot weather.All of that water management makes for very pretty pink flamingos. These lesser flamingos (above) produce deep red plumes in the breeding season. You can judge the health of a bird by the quality of its feathers, and these are excellent.Flamingos benefit from direct sunlight. It stimulates their courtship display and breeding activity. So the next key job for the living collections team in summer is to ensure that plants don't get to high and that lawns are mowed to remain short. Flamingos like to out in the open for their key breeding behaviours- lots of room for marching and their famous dances as well as for nest building. Just check out the nesting colony of greater flamingos at WWT Slimbridge. They build their nests exactly like wild flamingos do, crushed together out in an area of open ground.Nesting greater flamingos (above) at WWT Slimbridge in 2015. The birds all nest together in one area of their island, out in the open and surrounded by water. A very natural way for flamingos to breed. As a colonial (group living) species, flamingos will always nest with many other birds.A final job to get the flamingos ready for summer is to manage the nesting and loafing (that means resting and standing) areas for the birds. A flamingo's day works on a relatively simple schedule. They feed and forage in the morning and in the afternoon and evening. They bath in the morning or afternoon and they snooze around lunch time (unless they are nesting, in which case they can be more active throughout all times of the day). They will stand around and preen for a large proportion of the day, as I mentioned previously. Therefore, flamingos need to have comfy areas to do this loafing and preening in. So the living collections team, every spring and summer, manage the islands in the bird's enclosures. Shovelling in tonnes of sand to keep flamingos comfy. This is special sand that is free draining and keeps the birds feet healthy. That's a lot of sand! An essential part of summer flamingo husbandry is managing the areas that the birds stand and nest in. That means a lot of hard work in moving around special estuary sand, which is best for keeping chicks clean and dry and for making sure the feet of adult birds remain healthy (photo above).All of what I have said is beautifully illustrated in this photo below. You can see the island in the Andean flamingo enclosure has been sanded and is nice and clean and fresh, and the birds have built nests. The flamingos are all bright pink and have a beautiful feather condition. You can see that the vegetation has been trimmed and managed to give the birds space to display and loaf around. And you can see the water is clean and clear. These management techniques have not only benefited the flamingos- look at the displaying pair of rosybill pochards (the two ducks at the front of the photograph). Clearly very happy to be living in this enclosure :-)
What's it like to care for the WWT Slimbridge flamingos under lock down? Find out in our behind-the-scenes report with Phoebe, a member of the living collections management team.
What's going on at each WWT centre with the flocks of flamingos? Just because we're closed, doesn't mean we're not still caring for the birds. And this April, why not mark the very first International Flamingo Day by doing something truly flamtastic!