Preserving Wildlife

Keeping Flamingos in the Pink


Lesser flamingos prefer to be part of the crowd. Wild flocks of this nomadic species (found throughout Africa, Spain, India, Pakistan and the middle East) often contain thousands of birds. Found in flooded salt pans and alkaline lakes this overtly gregarious species is never alone – their distinctive red-tipped bills are never far from one another.

This very social lifestyle is thought to have evolved for maximizing predator avoidance – a wonderful example of safety in numbers. Hanging out in large groups is also a great way to increase your food intake (many birds churning up lake sediments means more available shrimp!) and exploit nesting sites to increase the breeding success of your population.

Stress Levels

At the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park, flamingo enclosures are designed to mimic natural environments and although overall flock numbers are not as large as those observed in wild populations social interactions are exactly the same. 

Our world-class approach to husbandry and animal management ensures that our collections receive the very finest care and veterinary records reveal that flamingos do extremely well in zoological settings.

However, ill or injured birds that are taken from the flock for veterinary attention don’t fair as well. This is especially the case with lesser flamingos, which are more susceptible to stress-related problems than other species. Flamingos, like people, need certain levels of stress to remain healthy and alert in their daily lives but if their levels get too high for too long, problems start to emerge.

We believe the primary reason for this type of elevation is the placement of ailing flamingos into treatment rooms where they are housed alone. Unfortunately this has been a common practice and often leads to further loss of condition in hospitalized birds.

Buddy Birds

In cases of chronic stress the flamingo’s weakened immune system can also increase the chances of contracting certain kinds of fungal infections, which, in turn, can aggravate pre-existing medical conditions. One possible solution has been to provide the ill flamingo with a “buddy” bird.

This companion is a healthy individual from the home flock that is introduced to help reduce stress levels by forming a “mini flock.” However, there is concern that when placed in this situation, the buddy bird is at risk from injury and also potentially susceptible to infections if the previously hospitalized bird is already has the fungus.

How can we help? We are planning on bringing together a team of experts from different disciplines to assess how successful the buddy bird approach is and also consider other methods for relieving stress. Lesser flamingos are going to receive help from our veterinarians, curators, care staff and researchers in the behavioral biology division at the Institute for Conservation Research. Collectively we are going to examine flamingo behavior and study hormone levels both in the home flock (where birds are healthy) and in the hospital treatment rooms.

Once we’ve determined how stress hormones change during both breeding and non-breeding seasons (from poop collected regularly from birds) we’ll have a good idea of what natural levels of stress look like in a flamingo’s daily life. We will then be able to see how being housed singly or with a buddy bird really effects ill flamingos.

We’re also planning on adding mirrors to our treatment rooms in lieu of a buddy. The hospitalized flamingo will see itself in the mirror and an alternative mini flock will be formed without having to risk a healthy bird. We shall keep you updated as this exciting study gets off the ground.

By Matt Anderson, Ph.D.,
Director of Behavioral Ecology
San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.