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Bright pink flamingos are healthier and more aggressive   

A new study has revealed that bright pink flamingos are more aggressive than those with light pink feathers when fighting over food. According to the research, the females are just as combative as the males.

When flamingos are first born, their feathers are gray or white. The flamingos gradually turn pink as they grow, and the color actually comes from their diet.

Flamingos eat algae, larva, and brine shrimp, which are all loaded with red-orange pigments called carotenoids that transform their feathers to various colors ranging from bright red to light pink. 

In lesser flamingos, pink plumage is a sign of good health, and a flush of color often means they are ready to breed. The brighter color also indicates when the flamingos are the most belligerent.

At the WWT Slimbridge Wetland Centre, Dr. Paul Rose of the University of Exeter studied the behavior of lesser flamingos in different feeding situations.

“Flamingos live in large groups with complex social structures,” said Dr. Rose. “Color plays an important role in this. The color comes from carotenoids in their food, which for lesser flamingos is mostly algae that they filter from the water.”

“A healthy flamingo that is an efficient feeder – demonstrated by its colorful feathers – will have more time and energy to be aggressive and dominant when feeding.”

Dr. Rose observed flamingos foraging in three different settings: a small indoor feeding bowl, a bigger indoor feeding pool, or in a large pool outside.

The flamingos were found to spend less than half as much time displaying aggression when eating in the outdoor pool compared to when they ate from a bowl indoors. In addition, their foraging time outside doubled. 

“When birds have to crowd together to get their food, they squabble more and therefore spend less time feeding,” said Dr. Rose. “It’s not always possible to feed these birds outdoors, as lesser flamingos only weigh about 2 kg and are native to Africa, so captive birds in places like the UK would get too cold if they went outside in the winter.”

Dr. Rose said the study shows that flamingos should be able to forage over a wide area. 

“Where possible, creating spacious outdoor feeding areas can encourage natural foraging patterns and reduce excess aggression.”

“This research shows that zoos don’t have to make huge changes to how they keep their animals to make a big, beneficial difference to animal behavior.”

Lesser flamingos do not have a set breeding season, but simply breed when they are in good enough condition. Dr. Rose said this is often displayed by a pink flush in the feathers, and the birds become paler again during the tiring days of early parenthood.

“This study is a great example of why I love working with WWT Slimbridge. Based on my observations, I suggested some changes – and the keepers were willing to try them out,” said Dr. Rose. “As a result, we get pinker, more relaxed flamingos.”

The study is published in the journal Ethology.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer


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