High school was a hellish experience for some, where social hierarchies forced unnecessary inter-clique tension. You might've pondered, “I wonder if my social relationships would be simpler as a flamingo?” As it happens, the answer is no.
A new study published in the journal Behavioural Processes has discovered that flamingos form friendships with specific birds in their flock that last for years. These buddy birds also appear to have enemies, as it appears there are specific birds that they will fight with and actively avoid. Flamingos are, essentially, all of us.
The 5-year study by researchers from the University of Exeter in the UK observed four flamingo species from the WWT Slimbridge Wetland Centre, also in the UK. It ran from 2012-2016 and looked at flocks of Caribbean, Chilean, Andean and Lesser flamingos.
Their behavioral observations revealed that the birds were forming complex social bonds within the flock. Relationships such as “married” couples, same-sex friendships, and friends in groups of three to four birds were seen within all four species. The flock sizes varied from 20 to 140 members strong, and the researchers observed that larger flocks exhibited a higher number of social relationships and interactions. The team hypothesizes that this demonstrates the importance of large numbers in captive populations to maintain the social bonds that evidently are an important part of flamingo life.
The squad serving communal looks.
"Our results indicate that flamingo societies are complex. They are formed of long-standing friendships rather than loose, random connections," said Dr Paul Rose, of the University of Exeter in a statement. “Flamingos don't simply find a mate and spend their time with that individual. Some mating couples spend much of their time together, but lots of other social bonds also exist.”
Friends would “hang out” to preen in a group, and this behavior was seen in same-sex relationships with multiple members showing the desire to be together isn’t purely based on mating opportunities. That said, socializing was seasonal as a higher number of interactions take place in the spring and summer breeding season compared to other times of the year.
"You can't sit with us," - Catty Slimbridge flamingos since 1960.
Flamingos have an average life span of 40 years in the wild but can survive into their 60s in captivity. The researchers state that some of the birds at the WWT Slimbridge Wetland Centre have been there since the 1960s, and the findings show that throughout their long lives these friendships have been sustained. Indeed their need for a buddy was certainly seen in the case of an escapee Lesser flamingo, which after 10 years on the lam from its zoo in Kansas was spotted in Texas having made friends with a Caribbean flamingo.
"It seems that – like humans – flamingos form social bonds for a variety of reasons, and the fact they're so long-lasting suggests they are important for survival in the wild,” said Dr Rose. "When moving birds from one zoo to another, we should be careful not to separate flamingos that are closely bonded to each other.”
Enjoy the lofty mating dance of the Slimbridge center's flamingos which, thanks to a heatwave in 2018, started mating for the first time in two decades.