Caretakers at the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden are developing a new technique with a Flamingo hatchling, enabling it to benefit from group socialization and parent rearing. This new partial hand-rearing method will allow the young bird to become a better mate and parent in the future. The chick, hatched July 13, has not yet been named, and the sex has not yet been determined.
During breeding season, staff closely monitors the birds’ nests and place resulting eggs in incubators. Dummy eggs are placed back in the nests to allow the birds to demonstrate their instinctual brooding behavior. Due to a multitude of natural predators (like owls and snakes) targeting Flamingo eggs and hatchlings, chicks have traditionally been completely hand-reared by caretakers for up to a year before being introduced to the flock. Partial hand rearing allows the chick to spend days with the flock under the watchful eyes of both caretakers and volunteers and nights safely inside, removed from the threat of potential predators.
“We would much rather have all of our birds be parent-reared,” said Holly Ray, assistant curator, birds. “Hand-rearing only occurs when it’s absolutely necessary for the safety and well-being of the animal. But if we can try something that will both help the animal thrive socially and physically while preserving its safety, it’s absolutely worth doing.”
Uncertain if any of the Flamingos would be interested in parenting the hatchling, caretakers watched anxiously as the chick was introduced to the flock. Caretakers placed the chick on a Flamingo mound (nest) and after about 45 minutes were able to confirm that a Flamingo pair were demonstrating parental behaviors toward the chick. This Flamingo pair was not the actual parents of the bird, so staff began referring to the duo as the chick’s foster parents. Both stay close to the chick and feed him what’s known as crop milk, a reddish, pre-digested and regurgitated meal. The female Flamingo is 22 years old. The male flamingo is 56 years old and the last remaining member of the Zoo’s original flock that arrived in 1963. The AZA reports the median life expectancy for flamingos is 25.8 years.
Zoo staff conducted an inspection of the grounds and accomplished a number of “chick-proofing” measures such as filling holes, patching walls and draining one of the pools to a level low enough for the chick to wade through safely. Caretakers are confident, however, that the hatchling will soon be swimming safely alongside the other flamingos. Although caretakers report the hatchling is adorably clumsy, the chick has proven to be extremely rambunctious and active, always exploring and investigating new sights and sounds.
Three other Flamingo chicks hatched this month and are being raised in the traditional method. During the hand-rearing process, the chicks gradually transition to different enclosures with various surfaces (sandy, grassy, muddy, etc.) the Flamingos will encounter in their natural environment. The birds are kept together, not alone. The chicks are also walked twice a day to provide adequate exercise needed for weight management, leg conditioning and overall healthy development. They will be introduced to the habitat more gradually and will be part of the flock earlier than previous years’ chicks.