A baker’s dozen of flamingo chicks adds to San Diego Zoo’s signature flock

San Diego Union-Tribune

Drawing the eye with their reddish-pink and white feathers, San Diego Zoo’s flamboyant American flamingos serve as its unofficial ambassadors.

Now the water-loving birds have added 13 new members to their delegation of 73. One of them is an American flamingo hatchling. The other 12 hatchlings are greater flamingos, a closely related species.

These dozen are being fostered by American flamingo adults, in a program that will eventually lead to a second flock of flamingos established at the zoo.

Hatchlings, of either species, don’t look much like the vividly colored adults. They’re a drab white or gray, which signals to adults that these are juveniles, said Dave Rimlinger, the zoo’s curator of birds.

The eggs were taken from a flock of greater flamingos at the Safari Park. That flock contains 231 birds, the largest captive flock in the world, Rimlinger said.

Rimlinger said he decided to have the greater flamingo chicks fostered at the zoo because the open format of the exhibit makes it extremely easy to watch the chicks as they develop and interact with adults.

“Our visitors enjoy watching flamingos get reared,” he said.

There was also room to raise more chicks, because under a species conservation plan, most of the American flamingos weren’t supposed to breed this year, he said. The plan uses genetics to plan breeding, with the goal of ensuring genetic diversity.

So most of the eggs of the American flamingos were removed and greater flamingo eggs substituted, Rimlinger said. This was planned so the substitute eggs would hatch around the same time the American flamingo eggs would have hatched.

By 2020, enough greater flamingos should have been fostered at the zoo to allow a new flock to be established, he said.

Raising flamingo chicks is a job for both mom and dad. Usually, one egg is laid at a time, and it takes roughly a month to hatch. The parents guard the chicks, and feed them a kind of avian “milk” produced in their throats.

Chicks congregate in groups called “creches,” their parents recognize them by their unique calling sounds, which functions like a name for identification.

As they mature, chicks develop the characteristic bend in their beaks that allow them to strain food from their water, holding their heads upside-down.