Zookeeper, Geraldine Murphy, has had her hands full over the last few weeks as she has been hand-rearing the first ever Chilean Flamingos to hatch at Belfast Zoo!
Belfast Zoo has been home to flamingos since the zoo first opened in 1934, but the zoo first became home to Chilean Flamingos in 2010. However, in all this time, the birds never laid eggs, despite attempts by the zoo team to encourage breeding behavior.
The team installed mirrors in the enclosure to make the birds think that they were part of a much larger flock, but without success. Last year, keepers built artificial nests consisting of mounds of mud measuring 30 to 60 centimetres in height and installed ‘dummy eggs’, produced by a local wood turner. This had instant success with the birds beginning to display natural courtship behaviours, and soon eggs began to appear on the nests.
Despite the initial excitement, the eggs were infertile but it gave the team hope, which became a reality when this year’s eggs hatched.
Zookeeper, Geraldine, stepped in to hand-rear the young chicks, “Popcorn hatched on 17 September and Peanut hatched on 5 October. We monitored the behavior of the adult birds and unfortunately, due to their inexperience at being parents, we had to step in to hand-rear the chicks on this occasion! Until flamingo chicks are able to feed themselves, they rely on ‘crop milk’ which is a nutritious liquid produced by both parents. When they first hatched they needed to be hand-fed six times a day with a substitute that has been developed to provide all of the essential vitamins and nutrients. The pair therefore came home with me every evening and back to the zoo with me each day. As they get older, they will need fewer feeding during the day and when they are old enough they will be reintroduced to the rest of the flock.”
Geraldine continues, “Flamingos are iconic birds with their long legs, long neck and beautiful pink plumage. However, what is not common knowledge is that flamingos are not born with their stunning and iconic pink colour. When Popcorn and Peanut first hatched they were covered in fluffy white feathers, which gradually darkened to grey over the first few days. The pair will not moult to their adult feathers until they are about a year and a half old. In fact, adult flamingos’ pink colour comes from carotenoid pigments which they consume as part of their diet of molluscs, crustaceons, insects and algae.”
Zoo manager, Alyn Cairns, said, “We are absolutely delighted with the arrival of Popcorn and Peanut. There are six species of flamingo in the world and they are an ancient group of birds with fossil records dating back to more than 10 million years ago. Despite this, over the past 40 years the Chilean Flamingo population has dropped significantly and it is estimated that there are only 200,000 to 300,000 left in the wild. This is due to the impact of habitat loss, egg-harvesting and hunting. If such a startling trend continues, it is possible that this stunning bird will face the very real threat of extinction in the future. It is vital that numbers in the wild are carefully monitored and that zoos play an active role in ensuring a safety net population. It is fantastic that the efforts of the Belfast Zoo team have had such excellent results!”