Barging flamingos

A Lesser Flamingo barges into its feeding companion (centre). Photo: WWT.
A Lesser Flamingo barges into its feeding companion (centre). Photo: WWT.
Previously unrecorded ‘bad’ behaviour in flamingos has been observed during a long-term research project at Slimbridge Wetland Centre WWT in Gloucestershire.

For the first time, individuals in a flock of waterbirds have been observed purposely barging into other birds rather than walking around them. This is different to standard ‘pecking order’ confrontations where birds compete for food. The victim is apparently not doing anything, so there would seem little immediate point in using energy and risking injury by giving it an unprovoked shove.

The behavioural research is centred at the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust's (WWT) Slimbridge HQ because the captive flamingo flocks are considered large enough to reflect wild flock behaviours, but not too large to be unable to keep track of individuals.

WWT research has already discovered other new behaviours, including flamingo flocks developing social networks, with some gregarious individuals acting as links between different social groups.

Paul Rose, a PhD student at Exeter University who is conducting research at WWT, said: “Barging is very unusual behaviour for a waterbird and something that does not seem to have been studied before. The flamingos are acting like kids in a playground, finding out how much they can get away with, and it could be a way of enforcing social hierarchy within a flock.
“One interesting aspect is that this behaviour is common to all six species of flamingo. The MSc students who do their degree projects here help to collect the data, and we’ve seen the same behaviour in all six species that reside at Slimbridge.

“I’ve actually witnessed one flamingo barging into another that was fast asleep, standing on one leg, and sending it flying. The next step is to find out whether this is behaviour that’s specific to males, females, young or older birds, and to try to understand what it might mean.”

Paul’s research was published last year in WWT’s scientific publication Wildfowl. He is joint author of the paper ‘Evidence of directed interactions between individuals in captive flamingo flocks’, which appeared in Volume 65 of the academic journal.

Flamingos breed in colonies and WWT’s research aims to gain a greater understanding of the social balance there which can affect the well-being of individuals. The captive flamingos at WWT wetland centres which are individually marked making it possible to keep track of each individual and relate their behaviours to their age, sex and other characteristics. The research will provide information to other zoos to keep their captive flamingos happy and healthy which could become important for the survival of the species if wild flamingo populations crash.

Four of the world’s six flamingo species are classed as Vulnerable or Near Threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Despite there being almost five million flamingos in the world today, the total number of major flamingo breeding sites, worldwide, is thought to number fewer than 30. Over 75 per cent of the global population of Lesser Flamingos breeds at just a single site in East Africa. Although flamingos are numerous, they are threatened by the loss or degradation of these key sites. The main threats include water abstraction, mining and pollution.

WWT’s captive flamingos are part of WWT’s wider conservation work to protect these iconic wetland birds. Techniques developed through its work with captive birds are used to benefit wild flamingos. For example, artificial nest mounds have been used to encourage birds to nest in the wild, marking techniques developed at Slimbridge are now widely used on wild birds, and researchers have gained valuable field skills through working with our expert aviculturists.