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Why flocks of flamingoes have friendship groups

April 21, 2020 9:00AM Kids News

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Flamingoes in Laguna Colorada, Bolivia. Picture: iStock media_cameraFlamingoes in Laguna Colorada, Bolivia. Picture: iStock

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Flocks of flamingoes are collections of little friendship groups just like a schoolyard at play time, new research shows.

A five-year study reveals that, despite being part of a large flock of hundreds of birds, flamingoes mostly spend time with a small group of close friends.

The birds also avoid certain individuals, suggesting some just don’t get along.

The findings are important because they will help zoos know how best to keep flamingoes in captivity* happy and healthy.

The University of Exeter scientists studied four flamingo species at a wetland wildlife reserve in the UK called WWT Slimbridge and found social bonds including “married” couples, same-sex friendships and even groups of three and four close friends.

“Our results indicate that flamingo societies are complex. They are formed of longstanding friendships rather than loose, random connections,” said Dr Paul Rose, of the University of Exeter in the UK.

“Flamingoes don’t simply find a mate and spend their time with that individual.

“Some mating couples spend much of their time together, but lots of other social bonds also exist.

“We see pairs of males or females choosing to hang out, we see trios* and quartets* that are regularly together.

“Flamingoes have long lives — some of the birds in this study have been at Slimbridge since the 1960s — and our study shows their friendships are stable over a period of years.

“It seems that — like humans — flamingoes form social bonds for a variety of reasons, and the fact they’re so long-lasting suggests they are important for survival in the wild.”

Flying flamingo media_cameraFlamingoes near Bogoria Lake, Kenya. Picture: iStock

Dr Rose said the findings could help in the management of captive flamingoes.

“When moving birds from one zoo to another, we should be careful not to separate flamingoes that are closely bonded to each other,” he said.

The study used information collected between 2012-16 and looked at flocks of Caribbean, Chilean, Andean and Lesser flamingoes.

The flocks varied in size from just over 20 to more than 140, and the findings suggest larger flocks contained the most social interactions.

“The simple lesson of this is that captive flamingo flocks should contain as many birds as reasonably possible,” Dr Rose said.

The study found that seasons affected social interactions, with more bonds forming in spring and summer — the breeding season.

In three of the four flocks, the study also looked at condition of the birds (measured by the health of their feet) to see if there were links between social lives and health.

No link was found, and Dr Rose said this could mean that socialising is so important to flamingoes that they continue to do it even if they are not feeling at their best.

JUNE 28, 2004 : Flamingo chick "Audrey" nestles with her mother at San Diego Zoo 28/06/04. USA / Animal & Wildlife Centre / Bird media_cameraFlamingo chick Audrey nestles with her mother at San Diego Zoo, US.

FLAMINGO FAST FACTS
Flamingoes have waterproof plumage (the collective noun for all of a bird’s feathers together). It is pink because of the beta carotene in the algae and small crustaceans they eat. Beta carotene is what colours carrots and other foods.

They have long necks and long legs, webbed feet and a gooselike, honking call.

There are six living species of flamingoes around the world: greater and lesser (both from Africa), Chilean, James’s and Andean (all from South America) and American (from southern US, Central America, northern South America and Galápagos Islands.

Fossils show us there were large flamingo species in Australia in ancient times but they became extinct as inland lakes and rivers dried up.

A Chilean flamingo lived at Adelaide Zoo, South Australia, until it died in 2018.

Caribbean Flamingos on Bonaire media_cameraFlamingoes on the island Bonaire in the Caribbean. They fly to Venezuela and return to Bonaire the next morning. Picture: iStock

GLOSSARY

  • captivity: not in the wild
  • trios: groups of threes
  • quartets: groups of fours

EXTRA READING

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Australian-first dolphin happiness study

QUICK QUIZ

  1. Where was the study?
  2. What was the size range of the flocks studied?
  3. How will this research be useful for zoos?
  4. What does plumage mean?
  5. Are there flamingoes in Australia?

LISTEN TO THIS STORY

CLASSROOM ACTIVITIES
1. Social groups that keep us happy
The study about flamingoes summarised in this Kids News story shows that they need all different social groups to be happy and they often stay with their close flamingo friends over the years, not just any flamingo!

Similar to us, to be healthy and happy individuals, we need close friends and a variety of social groups to serve different purposes.

Create a ‘My Social Groups’ flowchart/diagram in which you can draw and/or write the people that make up your different social groups. It doesn’t need to be shown to anybody else and you can present it however you wish.

One way to structure your flowchart is to put your name in the middle of the flowchart, and around it in different boxes write your different social groups. Some headings could be:

  • Family
  • Closest friends
  • Friends
  • Sport friends
  • Hobby friends
  • Family friends etc.

Time: allow 25 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Health and Physical Education, Personal and social

2. Extension
“It seems that — like humans — flamingoes form social bonds for a variety of reasons, and the fact they’re so long-lasting suggests they are important for survival in the wild.”

Write why you believe long-lasting friendships help flamingoes survive in the wild?

Could you argue that this is the same for humans and their lifespans?

Time: allow 15 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Critical and creative thinking, Personal and social

VCOP ACTIVITY
Animal fact File
Use the information in the article to create a flamingo fact file.

Then use the template to make another fact file about your favourite animal. You can research the information, or you might know a lot about the animal already. You may even like to make the second fact file about your pet.

If needed, make a glossary of terms for any difficult or technical words you might have used. Using technical or more formal language can show you really understand the topic, so don’t leave them out if you know them. However, it is also important you know what they mean as well.

Here's an example of how to set out a fact file. media_cameraHere’s an example of how to set out a fact file.

HAVE YOUR SAY: How is playtime in your schoolyard like a flock of flamingoes?
No one-word answers. Use full sentences to explain your thinking. No comments will be published until approved by editors.

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