You could probably base a reality TV series on the lives of flamingos, such is the complexity of their social lives.
A five-year British study of four different species found a variety of bonds and dynamics, including couples, same-sex friendships and even groups of three and four close friends.
They tend to form long-standing friendships rather than loose, random connections, but also avoid others with whom they don’t get on.
“Flamingos don’t simply find a mate and spend their time with that individual,” says Paul Rose, co-author of a paper in the journal Behavioural Processes with colleague Paul Croft.
“Some mating couples spend much of their time together, but lots of other social bonds also exist. We see pairs of males or females choosing to hang out, we see trios and quartets that are regularly together.”
The study – which used data from 2012 to 2016 – examined flocks of Caribbean, Chilean, Andean and Lesser flamingos at WWT Slimbridge Wetland Centre, some of which have lived there since the ‘60s.
“Long-term partnerships were present in all flocks; preferred associates noted in 2012 were present in 2016,” the authors note.
The flocks varied in size from just over 20 to more than 140, and the findings suggest larger flocks contained the highest level of social interactions.
The study found that seasons affected social interactions, with more bonds forming – perhaps not surprisingly – in spring and summer, the breeding season.
In three of the four flocks, the study also looked at condition of the birds (measured by the health of their feet) to see if there were links between social lives and health.
No link was found, and Rose says this could mean that socialising is so important to flamingos that they continue to do it even if they are not feeling at their best.
He suggests the overall findings could help in the management of captive flamingos.
The simple lessons are that flocks should contain as many birds as reasonably possible, and when moving birds from one zoo we should avoid breaking up besties.
Nick Carne is the editor of Cosmos Online and editorial manager for The Royal Institution of Australia.