Spying on pretty flamingos

What do zoo animals get up to when the gates are closed and the visitors and staff gone home?

It’s an entrancing question and the start-point for scores of children’s books and movies, but in the case of one flock of captive flamingos, at least, the answer is: rather a lot.

A team led by Paul Rose from the University of Exeter in Devon, UK, decided to monitor the after-dark behaviour of 270 flamingos resident at the Slimbridge Wetland Centre, and set up a series of low-light cameras to do so.

It had already been established that during the daylight hours, the birds, from the family Phoenicopteridae, behaved in much the same way as their wild cousins – indulging, the researchers write in the journal Zoo Biology, in “periods of resting and loafing”.

Given that the captive birds lived in an environment free of predators, it was thought that perhaps they would spend the night hours snoozing (a behaviour slightly less boisterous than resting, or loafing). Such expectations, however, were proved wrong.

Instead, they spent much of their time foraging for food. Interestingly, they also spent time in areas of the pool, and depths of water, that were little used during the day.

“Wild flamingos are more active at night, and we were surprised to find the same is true in captivity,” says Rose. “It seems they have an in-built behaviour pattern to keep active.”

The findings, say the researchers, are of more than passing interest, and are of use to more than flamingo-keepers.

It is especially important for zoo designers. Creating enclosures for animals should involve the inclusion of areas that may not be used during the day, when visitors are present, but might be valuable for the animals’ wellbeing at night.

“This research has important implications for how we manage zoo populations of flamingos and other species,” says Rose.

“By providing a habitat that allows a range of activities to be performed – including some we don’t see them doing in the daytime – we can allow them to behave in a natural way.”

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