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Going the extra mile for flamingo conservation

Date: 10 Jul 2017

Flamingo

Forget Love Island this summer, our keepers have been busy matchmaking a flock of 41 flamingos.

We have been home to flamingos since the zoo opened in 1934 but first became home to Chilean flamingos in 2010. However, in this time the birds have never laid eggs despite attempts by the zoo team to encourage breeding behaviour.

Senior keeper, Allan Galway, said “We have tried a number of recommended techniques including the installation of large mirrors in the enclosure.  In this case ‘birds of a feather’ do flock together as Chilean flamingos are extremely sociable birds and live in large flocks.  The aim of the mirrors was to trick the birds into thinking there was a much larger flock to stimulate courtship behaviour, which includes marching, head turning, calling and preening.  However, this did not have any significant impact on our colony.  I approached a number of colleagues from zoos across the UK and Europe and we decided to try another technique based on advice provided.”

Allan explains “Flamingo nests are basically mounds of mud that measure between 30 to 60 centimetres in height.  This height protects the egg from flooding and ground heat.  The male and female birds build the nests using their bills to pull mud toward their feet.  When finished it looks a bit like a sand castle of mud.  However, our birds have not displayed these natural behaviours since arriving at the zoo.  We therefore decided to build some nests for the flock and I approached a local wood turner to produce some ‘dummy’ eggs.  The aim of this was to stimulate the flamingos’ natural breeding behaviours.  Almost immediately the flamingos started to pair up and within minutes there were courtship behaviours and displays taking place at the lake.  In the subsequent days, the pairs started to build the nests higher and within weeks the first egg was laid.  There are now a total of five eggs and we expect that the flock will continue to lay over the next few weeks.  We were delighted to witness the success of the matchmaking exercise. However, we started to have some concerns as the birds were leaving the nests and eggs for slightly longer than we would have preferred.  We therefore made the decision to artificially incubate the eggs.  We do not know, at this stage, if the eggs are fertile and our vet will be carrying out tests to determine whether there are chicks developing inside.  We have fingers crossed that the latest ‘craic’ at Belfast Zoo will be when the eggs hatch and hopefully produce our first fluffy flamingo chicks.  A decision will then be made based on monitoring of the adults’ behaviours to determine whether the chicks will return to the flock immediately or whether they will need to be hand-reared initially.  If it turns out that the eggs are not fertilised, we are still delighted that the birds are now demonstrating these natural behaviours and it is a great sign of things to come.”

There are six species of flamingo in the world.  They are an ancient group of birds with fossil records dating back to more than 10 million years ago.  This stunning bird originates from central Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Chile.  The word flamingo originates from the Portuguese language meaning ‘red goose’.

Like all flamingos, the Chilean flamingo has striking pink plumage with crimson feathers along the edge of the wings.  However, when chicks first hatch they have fluffy grey feathers.  The pink colour comes from carotenoid pigments which they consume as part of their diet.

Zoo Manager, Alyn Cairns, said “Flamingos are iconic birds and with their long legs, long neck and beautiful pink plumage they are instantly recognisable and a firm favourite with zoo visitors.  While the Chilean flamingo is not an endangered species, populations have fallen from 500,000 to approximately 200,000 in the last 40 years, predominantly due to the impact of man through habitat loss, egg-harvesting and hunting.  If this trend continues it is possible that this stunning bird will face the very real threat of extinction in the future.  It is therefore imperative that numbers in the wild are carefully monitored and that zoos around the world play an active role in ensuring a safety net population of these birds. Here at Belfast Zoo we care for more than 130 species, the majority of which are facing increasing dangers in their natural habitat and the very real possibility of extinction.  We breed endangered and critically endangered species from around the world and it is this passion for conservation which drives our team of dedicated staff.  It is fantastic that the efforts of the team and even a local wood turner have had such excellent and instant results.  We are excited to see the future for our Chilean flamingo flock.”

There’s fun for all the family at Belfast Zoo this summer with the new reptile and amphibian house, daily feeding times, a new visitor photography base camp, the Adventurers’ Learning Centre and you can visit of all the latest zoo babies and the flock of Chilean flamingos.