Sunday, October 13, 2013

Growing Up Flamingo

One of the many exciting things about working in a zoo all summer is that you get to see the baby animals growing up every day.  I got to work at Stone Zoo with WBS’s educational bird show last summer, so I saw first-hand many youngsters grow up.
These Flamingos nested in full view of the public
While most young animals are off exhibit until they reach a certain age, the flamingos build their nests, lay eggs, and raise their young in full view of the public.  This year six American Flamingos hatched at the Stone Zoo near Boston.  During our many visits to see these adorable little fuzzy flamingos, we realized that while almost everyone recognizes these birds as flamingos, many inquisitive kids (and adults) would like to know more about them.

There are actually six species of flamingos found around the world--in Africa, Europe, Asia, Central and South America, the Caribbean islands and occasionally southern Florida.  They can be found living in the tropics or mountains, but always near shallow brackish waters such as lagoons, swamps, marshes, estuaries, and mudflats where they find their food.  Flamingos are filter feeders and filter tasty blue and green algae, mollusks, crustaceans, plankton, insects, small fish, and seeds from the mud and water. 
This bird's striking pink color comes from the food they eat
The flamingo's pink color actually comes from the carotenoids in the food they eat.  Their unique downward bent beak is well adapted for filtering food out of the water and is lined with rows of hair-like lamellae for capturing their food.  The beak, and sometimes the entire head, is dipped into the water upside down and swept back and forth to filter the food out.  By using their spiny tongue as a pump, water is sucked in and pushed back out across the lamellae as fast 4 to 20 times a second, depending on the species. 

The flamingos' long legs and necks allow them to feed in deeper waters.  They sometimes use their webbed feet to stomp around in the water and bring the food off the bottom and closer to the surface where it can be filtered more easily.  The webbed feet also help flamingos stand on soft mud and make them excellent swimmers in water that
 is too deep to wade. 

While flamingos are most often seen standing in shallow water feeding and preening, they are also good fliers.  However, flamingos need a running start in order to take off, explaining why most of the flamingos at the zoo are fully flighted even though the enclosure has no roof.

Flamingos are very social birds and form colonies of a few dozen to over a million individuals.  Larger colonies split up for the breeding season.  These colonies perform synchronized displays such as marching, wing salutes, and head flagging.  Individuals pair up for the breeding season and form strong pair bonds.

Both parents assist with the building of the nest, which is constructed by pulling mouthfuls of mud, pebbles, feathers, and other nearby material up into a mound. This mound is built up until it is high enough so that the egg won't be washed away during a flood and is protected from the heat of the ground.  This can be a few inches or a foot high and has a slight indentation on the top to prevent the single egg from rolling out.  The parents are very territorial of their nest, which is usually located just out of reach of the neighboring nests.  Both parents take turns incubating the egg for about 26-31 days.

When the egg hatches, the chick is white and fuzzy with a straight pink beak and pink legs.  At the zoo, the chicks were standing up at about two days old.  Within a week, the chicks began to leave the nest and their pink legs and beak turned black.  At this point in the wild, fledglings would group up into microcreches and then later larger creches of thousands of other chicks for protection from predators. During these first few weeks, the chick's beak is not developed enough for feeding on its own, so food is provided by both parents in the form of crop milk.  This reddish milk is secreted by the upper digestive tract and is high in protein and fat.
This chick's beak is beginning to form its characteristic bend
By about eleven weeks, the hatchlings grow in brown juvenile plumage and their beaks gradually begin to get their characteristic bend and lamellae.  Juvenile flamingos get their bright pink adult plumage gradually between 2 and 4 years of age. Males and females look the same, but males are slightly larger. Flamingos live about 20-30 years in the wild, but in captivity, they can live to be 50 or older.

At the Stone Zoo each juvenile flamingo was given a unique identification band when they were old enough.  It has been quite exciting to watch these six flamingos grow up this summer!

Story and photos by Michaela Henneberg, World Bird Sanctuary Zoo Show Staff Member

1 comment:

Cassidy Cooley said...

My very first research paper, way back in the fourth grade, was about flamingos. I've loved them ever since. What a fun blog--thank you for featuring my favorite bird! :)