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
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!
Flamingos form friendships that last for years, new research shows.
I hope all of you flamingo followers are keeping safe and well in these difficult times, and I'm sure that you, like me, are missing being able to have contact with the birds on your visits to WWT Slimbridge. Especially at this time of year when they start to become more interesting than normal! It's the time when the bird's thoughts turn to nesting. Given the unusual circumstances, I thought I would provide some peeks into the life the flamingos, whilst the centre is closed that can give you an idea of what's going on and what they're up to. I'd like to start by giving a big shout out to my amazing bird expert colleague, Phoebe, who has been providing a whole stream of flamingo-related footage. During this quieter period, when they birds are only seeing those who provide them with their daily care, they can be found in areas of their enclosure that they don't always reside in. Like the Chilean flamingos crowding around the picnic table and stepping stones, for example! Phoebe caught a very flirty group of flamingos standing in the spot usually reserved for visitors! Phoebe and the other Living Collections wardens have a keen eye for the birds, and they can use the time when animals are feeding to take a closer look at the condition of all birds in a group. This is all the more easier when the flamingos are as tame and trusting as the lesser flamingos are- Phoebe is able to get right in with the flock having its breakfast to really see who is who and what is what. It's the sign of a good animal keeper- to be able to move calmly and confidently around your animals and then be accepting of your presence. These daily cleaning and feeding routines can reveal a great deal about the birds, both as individuals and as a group. The Chilean flamingos are quite partial to a bit of marching when you're inside cleaning. And Phoebe was lucky enough to have the whole flock dancing "just for her" whilst hosing down their rubber matting and food bowl. Watching this type of behaviour is extra important at this time of year. By looking at the courtship display and seeing who is getting really flirty, Phoebe and co. can try to predict (as much as possible because the one thing that flamingos are really good at is being unpredictable!) when the birds are most likely to began nest building and egg laying. An interested and flirtatious audience for Phoebe's hosing skills. Keen to impress or keen to check she's not missed a bit...?! Flamingos will be spending a lot of time foraging and preening during the spring. They have to keep up a good intake of carotenoid (pink) pigments from their diet to ensure that new feathers, for their breeding plumage, are as colourful as possible. And therefore they spend a great deal of their time preening and cleaning these new, colourful feathers so that they are attractive as possible to the other birds in the flock. Changes to the birds' behaviour will be noticed by Phoebe and the other wardens, which can tell them what stage in their annual cycle (moulting, growing new feathers, getting ready to nest etc) the flamingos are currently at. And they can use this information to provide the flamingos with exactly what they need; maybe sand for nests or more food to put on condition for nesting. Looking at the whole flock within its enclosure is helpful to see how settled and relaxed the flamingos are. This will be particularly important at the moment, with WWT Slimbridge and the other WWT sites closed. The birds react to visitors. And visitors can provide stimulation and interest to the birds, as well as the birds being interesting to the visitors. The sudden quiet maybe be an unusual situation that the flamingos are not used to. The routine of having people going around and past them between certain hours of the day can be a useful predictor of time and when things are likely to happen. Watching out for, and keeping an eye on, the birds helps the Living Collections wardens make sure the flamingos are doing OK when their normal routine is out of sorts. For example, Phoebe shared this photo of the Caribbean flamingos doing their courtship dancing. You can see lots of birds with their necks in the air, heads held high. This flock lives opposite the busy WWT Slimbridge restaurant. They see many, many visitors going to backwards and forwards. So when there are no visitors, checking on the birds' response is important. It seem in this case, they are carrying on as normal! So even though you may not be able to come and see the birds yourself at the moment, they are still being given the same good care as if things were running normally. Hopefully this will give you some insider knowledge of flamingo care at WWT that is always as good as watching the birds for yourself... I will leave you with a couple of close-up photos that Phoebe took of the lesser flamingos, showing just how close the WWT bird staff can get to their beautiful pink charges. In the photo above you can see the flock's social structure around feeding time. Some birds will be pushy and aggressive- barging their way in to the middle of the feeding pool. Other birds will be quieter, feeding around the edge and trying to not get in anyone's way. Changes in a bird's personality or demeanour are useful signs that he or she might need closer attention. When you get this close, you can see that the flamingo is not all one colour and not all one shade of pink. Lesser flamingos, for example, have darker pink necks and heads and lighter bodies. They should have long, red dropping plumes over their wings (at the right time of the year), and bright red legs and bill. The subtle changes in colour between each bird are, again, useful clues to how that individual is doing or feeling, and tell the wardens if all is well in the group.
What do romantic flamingos look like? It's the season for fabulous flirtation and lots of dancing and the flamingos start to perform their courtship displays.
Looking for some January reading? Why not learn something new about flamingos and their conservation...?
As the clocks go back and the months turn colder, the living collections team at WWT Slimbridge focuses on the needs of those species that need a little bit more TLC when it turns chilly. This is true for the flamingos as well as for the other animals in the collection too. For example, comfy beds of straw are piled up in some enclosures for the ducks and geese to sleep on.Flamingos are tougher than they look. These are bird built for wading around in caustic soda lakes where the water can strip human skin and flesh to the bone. They are also found in coastal wetlands and so are quite happy in salty water too. Finally, flamingos can live at high altitudes, up to 4000 metres above sea level where night time temperatures regularly drop below freezing. The birds must have special adaptations to extreme wetlands to be able to survive and thrive in them. However, not all flamingo species are particularly happy when the weather turns chill.Andean flamingos (pictured above) can withstand very low temperatures and freezing water in the wetlands of the South American mountains. Like all flamingos, they feed by filtering food from the lake's water. When a lake freezes over, the birds cannot filter for food so they have to move to a new feeding spot. In animal collections, we have to make sure that flamingos are kept on ice-free water so they can always find their food. Chilean flamingos (above) are found at high elevations and therefore are more cold tolerant than some other flamingo species. Chilean flamingos can feed on a range of different aquatic lifeforms- from plant to animal material. They can be more flexible, compared to other more specialised flamingo species. in their choice of location and habitat for foraging in. Lesser flamingos and Caribbean flamingos are not really "cold proof". They enjoy their creature comforts when it gets warm and need to be provided with extra heat inside their houses during the winter. The tiny size of the lesser flamingo means it is particularly vulnerable to driving winter winds and rain (although no flamingo enjoys the wind blowing under their tails), and so these birds will more often be inside over the autumn and winter. You can still see the lesser flamingos when they are inside from the viewing windows. Take a look closely and you'll see the indoor "beach" that Phil has created for the flamingos. Using sand really helps to keep the bird's feet in excellent condition and because the lessers use their house more than the other species, this is one of the way that we help to keep them comfortable when they are inside. Lesser flamingos, like the one in the photo above, may not be that keen on the cold, but they have lots of adaptations to surviving in lakes of caustic soda, where the pH of the water can be greater than 12 (very, very alkaline). Toughened skin on their legs and feet, plus a thick coating of feathers protects the birds from any damage to their feather. Lesser flamingos can also drink water from hot springs that feeds these lakes- and when we say hot we mean at temperatures close to boiling point. We have also been installing new lighting into the Caribbean flamingo house at WWT Slimbridge, with an aim of mimicking the natural day length that the birds would experience in the wild, even when the days are shorter here in the British winter. What about wild flamingos? How do they deal with the extremes of the environment that they inhabit?The adaptations that flamingos have to withstand the harsh conditions of their natural habitats include:- Tough scaly skin on their legs and feet.- A counter-current blood supply in their legs and feet so they do not lose heat when wading around in cold water. Blood travelling up the leg from the foot is warmed by blood travelling down the leg from the body and so the bird saves energy. - Preening behaviour to remove crusty salt residues from their feathers, to keep themselves insulated and waterproof. - An efficient way of processing the chemicals from their food, which are toxic, in their livers to create their beautiful pink colours.- An ability to drink water near to boiling point.- Salt extraction glands in their bill so they can drink water of a high salinity. - Flamingos are also nomadic in their movements, so they will travel to new (more favourable areas) when conditions in their current location are not looking that fun... A greater flamingo (above) preens its body feathers. Even with their seemingly awkward bills, flamingos are able to preen and clean each individual body feather carefully. This preening behaviour is important because birds have to regularly clean soda crystals off their feathers, which can form when flamingos are wading around in very salty water. Some scientists believe that the Caribbean flamingo (above) has the largest and most efficient salt glands of any flamingo species as, due to the part of the world they live, they are more likely to be drinking seawater. This November's edition of WWT Slimbridge's "WildWatch" will tell you more about the flamingos in winter and how we keep them snug and warm.