On Wednesdays, we wear pink: flamingos form cliques with each other

Watch a Caribbean flamingo argument and fight. Credit: Paul Rose

Flamingos want to hang out with like-minded flamingos, according to research published in Scientific Reports.

The researchers, who have observed Caribbean and Chilean flamingos in captivity, found that the birds spent more time with those they shared personality traits with.

The information could help improve the welfare of the birds (and other animals) in zoos.

“Our previous research has shown that individual flamingos have particular ‘friends’ within the flock,” says study co-author Dr Paul Rose, from the World Wildlife Trust and the Centre for Research in Animal Behaviour at the University of Exeter, UK.

“In this study, we wanted to find out whether individual character traits explain why these friendships form. The answer is yes – birds of a feather flock together.

Chilean flamingo argument. Credit: Paul Rose

Flamingos standing in river
Two Caribbean flamingos ganging up on another bird. Credit: Paul Rose

“For example, bolder birds had stronger, more consistent ties with other bold birds, while submissive birds tended to spend their time with fellow submissive flamingos.”

They observed a flock of 147 Caribbean flamingos and a flock of 115 Chilean flamingos, both held at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust’s Slimbridge Wetland Centre in the UK.

The researchers measured different flamingo personality traits like aggressiveness and willingness to explore.

“We used a specific description of what each personality looked like to ensure that they were recorded consistently,” says Rose.

“We then checked that we categorised the same personality in the same bird for consistency.”

It took several months of flamingo observation to collect enough data for this.

Caribbean flamingo fight. Credit: Paul Rose

“Flamingos are quite ‘obvious’ in the behaviours they display –  it is clear to see when they are angry or excited or uncomfortable based on how they hold their feathers, how they vocalise and what their general body language is – so they are a great study system for this type of research,” says Rose.

Flamingos fighting
Bold Chilean flamingos pushing away a more submissive bird. Credit:Paul Rose

“Like humans, flamingos appear to carve out different roles in society based on their personality,” says study co-author Fionnuala McCully, now at the University of Liverpool, UK.

“For example, we observed groups of aggressive birds which attempt to dominate rivals and tend to get in more fights.

“Meanwhile, the role of submissive birds may be more complex than simply being lower down the pecking order – they may be using a different approach to get what they need.”

The researchers found that Caribbean flamingo groups had particular roles for birds with certain personality types, but the Chilean species didn’t.

“Our findings need further investigation, both to help us understand the evolution of social behaviour and to improve the welfare of zoo animals,” says Rose.

Flamingos fighting
An aggressive Caribbean flamingo displaces two other birds. Credit: Paul Rose

“But it is clear from this research that a flamingo’s social life is much more complicated than we first realised.”

Rose adds that because the behaviour was so consistent, it seems likely that wild flamingos would follow similar patterns – although they can’t rule out environment-based differences.

“In previous social behaviour research on flamingos, I have had messages from wild flamingo ecologists saying that they have observed what my in-zoo papers have shown but sadly the scale of wild flamingo populations makes it very hard to measure consistently in the same individuals.”

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