Flamingo enrichment and welfare

Flamingos are commonly housed in ex situ (out of the wild) populations, managed under human care in zoos, bird parks and other zoological facilities. In fact, flamingos are one of the most commonly seen of all exotic birds in zoos. Flamingos have complex needs and their husbandry (i.e. daily care) and management (i.e. how populations are maintained to ensure they are sustainable) can be challenging.

What is flamingo welfare?

Animal welfare is defined as “the state of the individual as it attempts to cope with its environment” and welfare encompasses physical (e.g. health), behavioural (e.g. the animal’s activity) and psychological (e.g. how the animal is feeling) components. Good flamingo welfare can be upheld for birds in zoological facilities by ensuring that husbandry and management is appropriate for their needs and is based on sound scientific evidence. Examples of what inputs (i.e. the resources given to the flamingo) as well as measurable outputs (i.e. what can be measured to assess welfare) are described in the figure below.

What is environmental enrichment?

One of the ways of enhancing flamingo welfare is through the use of environmental enrichment (EE). EE is a method used to increase the opportunities that a captive animal has to perform a wider range of behaviours that create more natural activity patterns. EE can be nutritional (e.g. food presented in a way that promotes foraging behaviour), occupational (e.g. a long-term stimulus that keeps the animal interested over time), physical (e.g. a device put into the enclosure that the animal engages with), sensory (e.g. devices or furnishings that engage different sensory modalities) and social (e.g. maintenance of a social group that promotes different social behaviours). Training of an animal to engage with aspects of its daily husbandry can also be considered as enriching.

EE for captive flamingos can focus on:

  • a large social group, which promotes courtship display and reproductive behaviours as well as giving birds choice of who they wish to associate with
  • opportunities for filter feeding by managing water levels in pools and lakes
  • adding items into the enclosure for filter feeding, such as duck weed (Lemna sp.)
  • managing sand and mud on islands in the enclosure to promote nesting activity
  • allowing pairs in a flock to breed and rear their own chick
  • shallow and deeper areas of water for paddling, wading, swimming and up-ending
  • natural pool substrates so flamingos can stamp-feed and stir up aquatic organisms to consume
  • bubblers in pools that move around the water and encourage filter feeding
  • indoor lighting and heating to recreate natural light spectrum and climate when birds are housed indoors
  • expansive space in pools and lakes to allow birds to bathe and preen together
  • spreading flamingo pellet across multiple containers or in a shallow feeding pool to allow flamingos to forage without excess competition.

Examples of enrichment for flamingos in zoological facilities

Filter feeding is what flamingos have evolved to do. In the wild, filter feeding takes up a large proportion of the flamingo’s time budget. Managing water levels in the enclosure and providing areas of different substrates enhances the opportunities that flamingos have to forage and filter.

Flamingos build large nest mounds to protect their egg and chick during incubation. Providing areas of sand and mud, and regulating water levels to get substrate consistency just right, allows birds the chance for creating nest mounds.
Flamingos creche their chicks in nursery groups for the protection of their young. Keeping a large flock increases the chances of reproduction. Performing the behaviours associated with rearing a chick from nest building through to fledging is a very enriching opportunity for adult flamingos.
Giving flamingos opportunities for filtering is a great way to keep birds occupied for longer. A barrow-load of duckweed, collected from a clean and pollution-free water source, is about to be delivered to a captive flamingo flock for the birds to enjoy.

Bubblers move water around, keeping it aerated and fresh. Bubblers also make tasty morsels available for flamingos to filter.
Creating conditions for blooms of Daphnia keeps a flamingo enclosure interesting for the birds.

Flamingos can up-end and forage partially underwater just like other waterbirds, such as this freckled duck. A range of water depths provides flamingos with choices to forage in different ways and keeps them busy for longer.
Wild flamingos will filter feed whilst swimming. Providing opportunities for swimming in captive enclosures increase exercise and behavioural diversity.
Freshwater for bathing. Essential for plumage maintenance and waterproofing. A clean flamingo is a healthy flamingo.
Estuary (large grain, sharp sand) is a comfy substrate for loafing and resting areas, and provides a great base for nest mounds. Sanded areas of a flamingo enclosure are, in themselves, enriching for the birds.
Space. A wide, expansive enclosures gives flamingos the opportunity to be away or with other birds, depending on their prevailing mood. Choice over the social environment is great flamingo enrichment.
Dancing. Keeping a flock with a mixture of males and females of different ages allows for flamingos to perform their well-known courtship display, which is a complex set of head, neck and wing movements, complete with marching and parading.
Feeding flamingo pellet is essential, otherwise birds will loose their characteristic pink colour. Feeding pellet in large feeding pools or troughs increases foraging time and reduces aggression, providing more outlets for natural behaviour.

More information on flamingo husbandry and welfare

Rose, P.E., Croft, D.P. & Lee, R. (2014). A review of captive flamingo (Phoenicopteridae) welfare: a synthesis of current knowledge and future directions. International Zoo Yearbook48(1), 139-155.

Rose, P.E., Brereton, J.E. & Gardner, L. (2016). Developing flamingo husbandry practices through workshop communication. Journal of Zoo and Aquarium Research4(2), 115-121.

Rose, P.E., Brereton, J.E., & Croft, D.P. (2018). Measuring welfare in captive flamingos: Activity patterns and exhibit usage in zoo-housed birds. Applied Animal Behaviour Science205, 115-125.

Rose, P.E., Lloyd, I., Brereton, J.E. & Croft, D.P. (2018). Patterns of nocturnal activity in captive greater flamingos. Zoo Biology37(5), 290-299.

Rose, P.E. (2021). Evidence for aviculture: Identifying research needs to advance the role of ex situ bird populations in conservation initiatives and collection planning. Birds2(1), 77-95.

More information on general zoo animal welfare and enrichment

Broom, D.M. (1986). Indicators of poor welfare. British Veterinary Journal142(6), 524-526.

Bloomsmith, M.A., Brent, L.Y. & Schapiro, S.J. (1991). Guidelines for developing and managing an environmental enrichment program. Laboratory Animal Science41, 372-377.

Newberry, R.C. (1995). Environmental enrichment: increasing the biological relevance of captive environments. Applied Animal Behaviour Science44(2-4), 229-243.

Mellen, J. & Sevenich MacPhee, M. (2001). Philosophy of environmental enrichment: past, present, and future. Zoo Biology20(3), 211-226.

Dawkins, M.S. (2003). Behaviour as a tool in the assessment of animal welfare. Zoology106(4), 383-387.