By Carrie Flood, Community Learning Manager
Welcome to Flamingo Cove
Mudslinging. Snap judgements. Jealous rivalries. Clandestine romances. Shouting matches. Face-to-face showdowns.
And that’s just the adults; the kids are worse.
This isn’t politics; I’m talking about flamingos.
Turns out Game of Thrones could have been based on a slow day in Flamingo Cove…
Episode 4: Toddler Dance Recitals, but in pink
Welcome back to Flamingo Cove, where the only thing rising faster than the temperature is the tension in the flock…
Phoenix in summer is hot, and not in a good way. There is one thing to look forward to however: the increase in courtship behaviors in the greater flamingo flock. Summer is when the birds start practicing their moves and mate selection moves into the playoffs.
Successful flamingo breeding depends on a long list of conditions including weather, consistency of the mud needed to build nests, and a bunch of other stuff we’re still figuring out. Identifying breeding requirements will allow us to better protect wild flocks and their habitat, so this is important stuff. We’re watching closely and trying to provide the things we can, such as materials and space, but some things like weather are out of our control. And flamingos are extra high maintenance because their courtship rituals are ridiculously complex; they must be performed exactly right or else nobody gets baby flamingos. Because of course they are.
Our greater flamingo flock is made up of mostly young birds brought together from three other zoos, and they are now old enough to begin thinking about a family. Since they didn’t grow up around adult birds who could show them how it’s done, our birds are relying on instinct to nail down the specifics of the flamingo dating scene, and…well let’s just say it can get pretty messy.
Courtship behaviors occur in a hierarchy, building on each other as excitement rises within the flock. The purpose is to make sure the whole flock is on the same page, ready to build nests and lay eggs together, so they can protect each other from predators by the force of numbers. Each step requires group cooperation and practice. Step One is called Head Flagging. Based on the, “alert, something’s wrong,” posture, interested birds stand very tall, and swing their heads from side to side in deliberate motions as if they’re watching a fast-paced tennis match.
Step One: Head Flagging
As other birds join in, things may progress to Step Two: Wing Salutes. While continuing to stand very tall, birds will extend one or both of their wings. If there are enough birds doing wind salutes, things can get quite fancy. Variations of wing salutes start showing up that involve fake preening, bowing, and may include low growling sounds.
Step Two: Wing Salutes (hubba hubba)
When the majority of a flock is doing wing salutes, (regular or fancy,) one of the birds will ask if everyone wants to Step 3: March. This is it: this is the end game. This is the most exciting, and dramatic display you’ll see in a flamingo flock. It’s what you watch while David Attenborough explains the scarcity of pristine soda lake habitat in every BBC documentary. (Is it me, or are they starting to repackage some of that stuff? I think I’ve seen the same footage of sharks in two different versions of Blue Planet; Blue Planet Original Flavor and Blue Planet 2: Electric Boogaloo. But I digress…) Step 3: The March… starts with a peculiar fluting call, which sounds like a cat mewing. (It also sounds a lot like the voice of the balance board in Wii Fit, if, like me, you’re resurrecting your well-intentioned but long-abandoned fitness plan and are hearing that voice again asking if you want to hear a fitness tip. Newsflash: We don’t.) The mewing call happens no other time, and as it’s picked up by the whole flock, the march ensues. Birds form a close-packed, high-stepping, head flagging flock that moves in unison like a school of fish. Executing sharp turns and precision moves, a flock can march like an army on parade for minutes at a time.
The process only progresses if all the other steps happen in the right order and with enough synchronized participation of individuals. If one or two birds show up late and start head flagging when everyone else is already saluting, it can throw off the timing and the whole ritual breaks down into chaos. Young flamingos need a lot of practice even if conditions are ideal, so our flock has more trial and error ahead as they’re figuring out their timing.
The good news? Practice happens all the time and it’s fun to see. Watching our flock practice is like watching a toddler dance recital – the will and ability are there, but the pulling-it-all-together-on-stage part is still a bit chaotic. The birds rev each other up, executing precision head flagging. Excitement builds as they perform increasingly fancy wing salutes! The fluting call goes out! Others take up the call as they pull in closer ready to march! This is it! Finally! They begin marching! …In all different directions. Over and over they try; head flagging is flawless, the salutes are fancy by any standard, but the marches…? Well, let’s just say when the curtain goes up, its more frozen stares and waving at parents than choreography. And of course, there is always the one in the back row dazzled into a stupor at the light reflecting off shiny shoes… They’ll get there. Someday. Meanwhile, it’s great to watch them practice and celebrate their little successes.
Some of you may have had a chance to see the flock as you drive past during Cruise the Zoo. Although sometimes it may appear as though the birds are asleep in the pool, rest assured the drama hasn’t slowed. Alexis our socialite troublemaker is once again at the center of the action, keeping her on-again-off-again boyfriend Ted on the hook while at the same time casting about for other opportunities.
Poor Ted. You know Ted. Ted is the boy next door; the heart of gold wrapped up in an easy going and affable, if somewhat clueless disposition. If Ted were a human, Ted would be a really good football player…
Ted is most easily identified by his leg band, which is yellow with #24 on it. His behavior is less predictable because he’s more subject to the whims of others than some of the other birds we’ve met, which means sometimes he finds himself knee deep in the proverbial muck with no idea how he got there….
Ted has a nice girl. Her name is Delilah. Her yellow leg band has a number 20 on it. Delilah is smart; she stands her ground and knows her own worth. She’s a great dancer; generally among the first to catch on to the status of choreography practice. She and Ted are still a new couple, but things are going well…unless Alexis is on the scene. Delilah doesn’t bother with Alexis, and she doesn’t bother with Ted when Ted is bothering with Alexis. For some reason when Alexis comes calling, Ted plays the smitten fool every time. When she’s had her fun, she moves on and Ted is left all alone, wondering what happened.Inevitably he has to catch up on the dance moves that Delilah has perfected in his absence. His bumbling, self-deprecating demeanor gets him back into good graces with Delilah.
Ted also sometimes invents rivalries with other males so that he can “defend” Delilah from their intentions. One of the frequent targets of this ploy is Ross, who sports a white band with number 13. Ross is in a solid, long-time relationship with Rachel, (white band number 14) and is no threat whatsoever to Ted and Delilah. Even so, Ross finds himself facing a display of aggression from Ted, just so that he can play hero for Delilah. Delilah seems to be wise to his games, and sometimes adopts an air of quiet exasperation during his stunts. (The look is hard to explain, but instantly recognizable.)
Last week when Alexis was flirting with Ted to make Herman jealous, Delilah continued to perfect increasingly fancy flourishes on her wing salutes, and she can now command the attention of any bird in the flock. Ted has a lot of practice to do if he hopes to match her skill level. Lately Ted has been sticking extra close to Delilah, and Alexis is nowhere to be found. Will Ted focus long enough to cement his bond with Delilah going into mating season? We’ll have to wait and see….
Next week… we’ll meet Ross and Rachel…
Episode 3: You Do You, Boo
Welcome back to Flamingo Cove, where the only thing more dramatic than the desert sunsets are the love lives of the birds.
Last week we met diminutive Theresa and her lovable, rule-following mate, Herman. Today we will check in with our drama queen Alexis and meet Dexter, who didn’t let his physical disability stand in the way of wooing an incredible girl with a heart of gold. Now the only question is… can he hang on to her?
But first… let us talk about the color pink. You will remember from Week 1 that there are six species of flamingos and that they all have their own color variations. Chilean flamingos like the ones we have on the tropics trail are a particularly flamboyant shade of pink, while the greater flamingos we’re talking about are a muted pale pink. Flamingos get their color from the carotenoids in their diet, which includes various species of crustaceans, brine shrimp and blue green algae, (which is now more correctly called cyanobacteria, but don’t even get me started on that!) You know how when we cook shrimp, they turn pink? It’s because cooking the shrimp unravels the protein that covers the carotenoid and reveals the color, and the digestive process of the flamingo basically does the same thing. Each flamingo species feeds on the carotenoid-filled menu options around them, which have different amounts of pigment and are then used by the birds in all sorts of places.
Vocabulary Alert: Uropygial gland. (Yer-OH-pidge-ee–ull) gland.
It’s fun, huh? I like it, too.
This is sometimes referred to as the preening gland by non-nerds, and birds use the secretions to keep their feathers in good working condition, but the flamingos also use it to make risky fashion choices. They paint themselves in different ways; the Chileans use it all over, but the greaters really focus on their wings. The more vivid the color compared to others in the flock, the healthier and more attractive the bird is to others. (This concept is not universal. Humans do not find other humans with bright pink wings universally attractive. Learned that one the hard way.) I do enjoy the thought that maybe flamingos paint themselves with intention and self–awareness; in my head, Dexter is the Picasso of the flock.
Who’s Dexter? Oh, I’m so glad you asked…
Dexter is our wildcard, our “you do you” bird. He has an anomaly with his neck which may be the result of an injury he got as a chick, but we aren’t sure. It affects him when he is focused on preening and settling down to rest, and it causes his neck to temporarily lock in a corkscrew formation. It only lasts a minute or so and it does not seem to cause him any pain, so while we monitor it closely for changes, he’s not being actively treated for it. He’s easy to monitor because he is the self-appointed disciplinarian regarding the punctuality of his meal delivery service. Should the keeper on duty arrive with breakfast even a minute late, Dexter will march right up to them and stare straight into their eyes as if in reprimand. I’m told it’s a disquieting experience and enough to make one wonder what is happening behind that steely, if vacant, glare. If his neck isn’t corkscrewed and he’s not scolding his caterer, you can identify him by his leg band, which is yellow and has the number 21.
Dexter is a lucky flamingo, too, because he has managed to woo the gentle Glinda. Glinda (yes, named after the witch) has a blue band with the number 56 on it. She is a sweet soul; patient and willing to go with the flow most of the time. She stands firm but isn’t one to instigate aggression if another bird comes too close; content to let Dexter handle things, as you can see, Glinda stands quietly while Dexter handles a disagreement in his own very special way.
Glinda saw past Dexter’s corkscrewed neck to the good-natured bird he is on the inside, (once he’s had breakfast, of course.) This is a new relationship, so the two aren’t always in 100% sync just yet but they’re working on it.
It’s possible that when Dexter is hungry, he’s not super focused on details, because in this photo he is blindly following a female with a blue band, but its lovely female blue 13, not Glinda #56.
Maybe he was hangry…? Anyway, as soon as he realized what happened he hastened back to Glinda.
A quick update on Alexis… she is really getting into the courtship game. She seems to have gone back to her old on-again-off-again boyfriend Ted. (More on Ted next week.) Lately she’s been flirting heavy with Ted; flagging her head and parading around him and she really turns it up if Herman is around to see. Seems like Alexis isn’t happy about being rebuffed by Herman and is punishing him by lavishing her attentions on Ted.
Don’t worry too much about Alexis, though, because she’s always got back up plans. The last couple of days she’s been edging closer to another established couple.
She’s been known to join a pair of birds before…
Episode 2: Oh No You Didn't!
Welcome back to Flamingo Cove, where the only thing hotter than the summer sun is the heat from a flamingo trying to steal someone else’s mate…
A friend of mine who introduced me to the world of the flamingo drama described them perfectly: “obligate colonials with personal space issues.” For birds that have to live together, they really don’t seem to like each other very much. The exception is when birds pair up. When paired, they will stay very close together, sleeping, feeding and preening. They will be so close they’re often touching, and will aggressively defend their little space from any other bird that comes close. In general, the closer birds stand, the tighter the bond. If they manage to find someone they like, it is very important to remain close to that bird. (I’m just telling you the rules; I don’t pretend to understand them.)
Last episode we met Alexis the troublemaker. This time we’ll start with one of my favorite couples; Theresa and Herman. Theresa is named after Mother Theresa because of her sweet nature and impossibly tiny stature and NOT AT ALL after my sister, who also happens also to be incredibly sweet and teeny. You can pick out Theresa because she has a white band on her leg with the number 08 on it, or if you just scan the flock for the short one. She’s a lovely shade of pink and has an independent streak, so she’s not afraid to walk away from drama. Not that she can’t stand her ground to defend herself or her faithful mate, whose name is Herman after the character on the TV show, “The Munster’s.” You can pick Herman out by his white band with the number 95 written in green on it. The two of them are one of the strongest pairs and are usually standing close together. They have a sweet backstory, too…
Herman seemed confused about being a flamingo at first. He would walk away from the flock and call out, as if searching for something he wasn’t finding. The other birds would call out to him, but he didn’t seem to want to join them. Eventually he came around and managed to pair up with Theresa. She had a bit more experience than him, and she’s more independent. During the beginning of nesting season a few years back, the birds begin building mud volcano nests and guarding them from other birds, who will sometimes steal materials for their own nests. Herman and Theresa had just started a small pile of leaves and twigs to begin their nest, and Herman was guarding it while Theresa slept next to him. One of the neighbors stole from another and it started a fight, which woke Theresa up. She stretched, walked a few steps away and went back to sleep. (Because she’s cool like that.)
Herman was completely flummoxed.
He needed to stand next to Theresa according to the rules, but he also needed to guard the nest! You could see his frantic thinking as he looked from her to the nest, to the thieving neighbors and back again. Then he did something surprising; he used his beak as a scrape, and carefully scooted the materials with him as he backed over to where she was so he could stand next to her. Sweet, huh? I know.
The thing is, flamingo behavior is complex. In the wild, they don’t breed every year; they wait for the conditions to be exactly right. What are those conditions? We don’t know! Closely observing our flock adds to the understanding of what they need in order to survive, find mates and raise a new generation. Once we understand, we can better protect wild flocks and the things they need to ensure their long term survival. And I do mean long term. The worlds oldest known flamingo died at age 83. You read that right; EIGHTY THREE. We have a lot to learn to ensure our grandkids get to see flamingos in the wild… scooting piles of leaves around because their mate fell asleep a few feet away.
Episode 1: single and ready to flamingle
There are six species of flamingos in the world and we have two at the Phoenix Zoo – Chileans and greater. All have long limbs and bear the hallmark pink color to varying degrees. To the casual observer they may look the same, but they vary widely in size and color patterns. Chilean flamingos are the darker pink of the two. They are native to South America and have ranges close to or overlapping with the Andean, Puna and Caribbean species. The greater flamingo flock resides at lakeside between the zebra and the otters. Greater flamingos are native to Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia. They share some of their range with the other African species, the lesser flamingos. Habitat loss and disturbance impact all six species, but the greater flamingo populations are actually holding steady for the moment. Maybe it’s because no one wants to stir up that holy mess…
Flamingos in the wild live in large flocks for to maximize their safety, but if you watch for more than a minute, you kind of get the feeling they’d rather live alone. It’s a constant shuffle of proximity squabbles and mate stealing. The greater flamingos at the Phoenix Zoo have a little something for everyone: a glamorous diva, a dashing leading man, same-sex couples, underdogs, mentors, backstabbing friends, gentle souls, an endearing clueless one, hard workers, dirty double crossers, laid back friends, a particularly strict timekeeper, and a whole group of teenagers that do everything like they’re arriving at a Beyoncé show.
Over the next few weeks I’m going to give you an insider’s glimpse at the happenings in Flamingo Cove. Grab a bucket of popcorn, because while some of the birds are looking for long-term relationships, there are spoilers in the mix with chaos on their minds. I’ll cover some of the flamingo natural history as we go, but let’s dive in with an introduction to one of the most interesting birds to watch: Alexis.
Alexis is your typical socialite; she has lots of friends and is constantly moving between social circles, keeping her options open. Alexis is our troublemaker – she loves to stir things up. If only all troublemakers wore a yellow band with the number 23 written on it.. She’s not particular about her targets; she invites other flamingos of all sizes, sexes and personalities to get into trouble. She’s even been known to join established pairs and act as though there were three of them in the relationship the whole time.
Alexis isn’t interested in settling down. She can usually be found preening while the others are courting – but she isn’t ever far from the action. You never know what Alexis is going to do, but it’s sure to be interesting! Last year, Alexis began hanging around Ted (Yellow 24) and his girl until she finally convinced Ted to run away with her. Typical Alexis, it didn’t last long and as soon as she had him, she lost interest. Alexis has been hanging out with a new man this week, while casting flirty glances towards Herman, (Green 95) who doesn’t seem entirely immune.
If she succeeds in stealing him, it will create chaos throughout the flock. If only there were a way to warn him…