Photo: Paul Rose/WWT. Paul at the WWT Slimbridge Centre. Without funding received from the People’s Postcode Lottery, visitors wouldn’t be able to experience ‘that sense of wonder when they see a flamingo for the first time,’ he says
There’s plenty to observe in a flamboyance of flamingos, says Paul Rose, and he should know: his PhD was all about the social behaviour of these wading birds. Here, he reveals why captive collections at institutions, such as WWT Slimbridge, are vital to understanding their wild habits
MY FAVOURITE flamingos are the three Andean species, because they’re the most fabulous colours: the Chilean (Phoenicopterus chilensis), Andean (Phoenicoparrus andinus) and James’s (P. jamesi). They’re also the rarest species. We have the largest captive group in the world here at the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) Slimbridge centre.
Visiting Slimbridge is one of my earliest childhood memories. I’ve since completed a PhD on the birds I saw as a child, which are still alive here. Most of my PhD was based on the social behaviours, meaning the interactions between individuals. I investigated what structure there is in a group: how do flamingos get along with their friends? It’s hard to observe social behaviours in wild flamingos, because their habitats are so remote.
I discovered they’re discriminating about who they like and who they don’t. When a flamingo puffs out its feathers it’s saying: “Get away, I don’t like you!” When a flamingo likes another, it will keep its feathers flat and smooth. The flamingos here have kept the same friends for the six years I’ve known them, but who knows how long they really stay friends?
I’ve taught animal behaviour since 2006 and have always been interested in birds. You need a passion for watching what they do. Sometimes, I’ve seen all the flamingos fast asleep on one leg, then one will try to walk by lifting the leg it’s standing on and crash into a heap!
In the breeding season, the male will follow the female around and she’ll try to make a platform with her wings. Flamingos are incredibly bad at making babies, however. Sometimes they get the wrong end. But flamingos make good research subjects, since you can get so close to them. They don’t care about the visitors and they behave as wild flamingos would do, so from a science point of view, they tick a lot of the boxes.
An expert on the dancefloor
My all-time favourite flamingo is Mr James, Slimbridge’s oldest flamingo. As I write, he’s looking stunning in his spectacular newly moulted breeding colours. James’s and Andean flamingos are closely related: Andeans have the black triangle wedge on the tail, whereas James’s have beautiful banana beaks. Mr James is in an enclosure with the Andeans and when they dance he’s aware that something is going on. They dance differently, so he’s thinking: “OK, we’re going over here… Stop!” in the wrong direction.
All species of flamingos do the march, some better than others. The lesser flamingo (Phoeniconaias minor) is the best, while the Caribbean (Phoenicopterus ruber) – also known as the American – is not so much. They will dance but it’s very chaotic, noisy and disorganised. When you see the lesser flamingo dance, it looks like their legs are on a conveyor belt. It is incredibly precise; they do a very tight march and a display where they snap their head forward, so their head will come down their necks like a hair clip. You can see how this dance has evolved in the lesser flamingo, it’s much more choreographed.
Both females and males display together during the courtships. She will pick a mate and he will pick a mate. It’s very democratic, incredibly subtle and delicate. You have a group, but gradually pair bonds will drift off together. That bond will be maintained until the chick has fledged.
We don’t know if these birds mate for life. In one colony of greater (P. roseus) flamingos, there was annual monogamy. In these groups, we see a mixture of life-long associates and birds that change partners every year.
A snapshot of nature
Out of the six species, four have an IUCN threat category and are threatened by human encroachment in the wild. Several species have a declining population trajectory. Without these birds at Slimbridge, we wouldn’t know much about flamingos in the wild. The captive flamingo is important, because it is a real snapshot of what happens in its native habitat. It’s one of the few captive species we can say that about.
We need to get the message across that the birds we keep here as captive collections are not just here for show. I worry people think it’s a gimmick. They’re not – there is real research, education and conservation taking place. You can come here and have a lovely day out, but don’t underestimate the birds’ usefulness, because they tell us a lot about their wild counterparts. If climate change has the effect it’s projected to have on wild bird populations, I don’t think the flamingo will be able to evolve quickly enough to deal with it.
Er… how do you spell that?
There is a wonderful word that we use for an animal that is extremely specialised – it’s called an extremophile, because it has a very restricted niche that it lives within. We have these caustic lakes, such as Lake Natron where the lesser flamingo comes from in East Africa. The pH of the water is so alkaline that it will strip human skin down to the bone, but they can wade through it because their skin is thick. That’s millions of years of evolution and it’s not going to change overnight if we alter their habitat.
The Chilean flamingo lives in the same environment as the Andean and James’s flamingo, but they don’t compete because their beak structure is different, so they feed on different foods. Again, the lesser and greater flamingo live in the same soda lakes, but they don’t compete because they eat different things.
Did you know?
My favourite flamingo fact is their longevity. I knew they lived for a long time, but the oldest bird died when it was 83 in Adelaide, USA. Our oldest birds date back to 1956, but they could even be older than that, because when they arrived in 1961, they were already adults. There are several birds in our greater flamingo flock that are nearly in their seventies and are still breeding with their partners.
Flamingos are victims of their own success, however. They live for a very long time, but if their productivity is poor, you’re not going to get enough baby flamingos to manage the flamingo into the future. The lesser flamingo in Botswana will breed successfully on average once every seven years, so that’s an incredibly long turnaround. That’s a bird, which in the wild has a lifespan of 52.
We’re still really unsure about their classification. We don’t know where they fit into the bird family tree. Some people think they’re ducks, some think they’re pigeons. Right now, they’re linked to grebes and the shorebird family, but it’s still very contentious. I love flamingos. They have a strange taxonomy, they live forever and they’re just mad.
Paul Rose is a research associate at WWT. He originally came to the trust as a PhD student, studying the social behaviour of flamingos.
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