Exciting news from ZSL Whipsnade Zoo, where zookeepers are celebrating the arrival of four flamingo chicks.
But to give them the best chance of survival, the eggs from the American flamingos had to be removed from their parents and spend a month in an incubator, before they were returned to the nests and successfully hatched.
In the wild, flamingos make great parents. They are sociable birds that breed in small colonies of between 15 and 50 pairs. The colonies synchronise their breeding so that all the chicks are born at the same time and can be protected as a group.
To attract a mate, males and females perform a spectacular courtship dance, twisting and preening while marching in unison. The dance is so complex that it can take many years to learn all the moves of which there are over 130 combinations.
Once they have chosen a partner, flamingos tend to be monogamous and form pair bonds, although in larger colonies they will sometimes change mates. Both parents build the nest which is a cup-shaped mound made from mud, stone, straw, and feathers, and will aggressively defend the site from other pairs of flamingos who may attempt to commandeer it. They take turns incubating the single chalky white egg, gently turning and lifting it with their bill at regular intervals. If the egg is lost or damaged they don’t typically lay a replacement. And despite popular claims, the yolk of a flamingo egg isn’t pink but is pretty similar to that of a chicken.
About a month later, the egg hatches in a process that can take over 24 hours. As the chick breaks out of its shell it frequently calls to its parents who will respond in return. When the chick finally hatches, its parents preen and clean it.
A newly hatched flamingo doesn’t have the familiar bright pink feathers that makes this bird so iconic, but is instead covered in soft grey or white down, which provides plenty of insulation to keep it warm. It has a short, straight red or pink bill which lacks the distinct colour patches of the adult bird, and red or pink legs that for the first couple of days are relatively plump and swollen.
Once the swelling has gone down, and the chick is strong enough to stand and walk it leaves the nest. By this time the bill and legs have turned black, but it will be another 10 weeks before the bill starts to curve downwards.
It joins other chicks of its own age to form a creche which is supervised by several adults in the colony. At feeding time, parents locate their offspring, recognising them from vocal cues, and won’t feed any other chicks. Both male and females produce a kind of crop milk, a secretion from the upper digestive tract, which is controlled by the hormone prolactin, the same hormone that causes lactation in mammals. The milk is high in protein and fat and bright red in colour due to the carotenoids in their diet of plankton. Chicks store the pigment in the liver to be deposited in their adult feathers when they grow.
Providing the chicks with crop milk takes up so much carotenoid, that during breeding season parent flamingos lose their colour and they turn almost white. Once the chick starts eating on its own the colour returns.
After a while the small creche merges with other creches in the wider colony containing thousands of chicks. It may seem strange that flamingos are happy to devote their time and energy to looking after unrelated birds, but chick-creching not only helps protect chicks from predators but also gives adults more time for foraging, thus improving their chances of passing on their genes to the next generation.
Flamingo chicks fledge at between 9 and 13 weeks. By then they have learnt to swim and can filter-feed. Despite being excellent parents in most departments, teaching flamingos to fly is not part of the agenda, so chicks have to teach themselves when their flight feathers develop at about 11 weeks.
Flamingos don’t turn pink until they are 1 or 2 years old, and they have grey eyes for the first year which then turn yellow. They reach sexual maturity between the ages of 3 and 6 but don’t tend to breed until they are 6 years old.
So, if flamingos are such fantastic parents why did the zookeepers at Whipsnade have to give them a helping hand?
Unfortunately, some of the younger, more inexperienced parents weren’t staying on the eggs for the 28-32 days required for incubation. To help them out the keepers carefully swapped the eggs for “practice eggs” and placed the real eggs in an incubator until they were nearly ready to hatch. They then returned the real eggs to the nest site in time for the parents to bond with their chick as it hatched.
In the wild flamingos live on average between 20 and 30 years, but can reach up to 40 or 50 years in captivity. A greater flamingo called Greater that resided in Adelaide Zoo, Australia lived to the grand old age of 83, until it succumbed to arthritis in 2014 and was put down.
How many species of flamingo are there in the world?
There are 6 species of flamingo:
Greater flamingo – one of the most widespread species found in northwest India, the western Mediterranean, Africa, and the Middle East, as well as small populations in northern Europe. Inhabits mudflats and shallow coastal lagoons.
Lesser flamingo – found in east, west, and southwest Africa and northwest India. Vagrants have turned up in southern Spain.
Chilean flamingo – found in central Peru, the coasts of South America, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, and southern Brazil, in salt lagoons and soda lakes.
American flamingo – also known as the Caribbean flamingo, it is found primarily in the Caribbean but a population has also been established on the northernmost coast of South America, Florida, and the Galapagos Islands. Lives in saline lagoons, mudflats, and shallow, brackish lakes.
Andean flamingo – found in South America, primarily in southern and central Peru, northwest Argentina, and western Bolivia, in salt lakes in summer and lower wetlands in winter.
James’s flamingo – also known as the Puna flamingo, it has the most restricted range and is only found in southern Peru, western Bolivia, northwest Argentina, and northeast Chile.