Long-term social bonds help flamingos survive by providing mutual support.

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Scientists have rarely studied friendships among animals other than humans and apes. For hundreds of years, scientists refused to think that animals could have emotions or other human traits. Recently, however, many have started to accept that there are birds and mammals that have feelings and senses, suffer when hurt, and form coalitions and alliances with other individuals to improve their own conditions.

In an English wildlife reserve, scientists studied flocks of four species of flamingos. These long-lived wading birds feed and breed in large flocks sometimes numbering in the thousands in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas. The scientists found that flamingos preferred hanging out with the same small groups of other flamingos. These included groups of two, three, or four, and these social bonds lasted for years. But it’s not all friendly; there are also birds that avoid each other.

Flamingos live in habitats where survival is difficult. For example, the Andean flamingo lives in the high elevation Andes Mountains of South America. They spend the summer feeding in salty lakes and migrate to lower elevation wetlands for the winter. Having stable relationships with other flamingos may help them find food, improve access to mates, and cope with sources of stress such as food shortages or human disturbance.

In a zoo, it may be useful to keep track of friendships among marked flamingos. That way, if there’s suddenly a change in the amount of time a flamingo spends with others, it could be a warning that something is wrong.

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“Study of these four flocks demonstrates that flamingos are selective in their choice of social partner and can maintain stable partnerships over several years. Flamingo flocks are not homogenous societies; birds seek out and remain with compatible partners to form long-standing relationships with specific individuals. Male and female flamingos are both likely to maintain a range of connections with conspecifics [members of the same species]. No relationship was found for the occurrence of solitary flamingos and their flock size, suggesting that in each flock studied all flamingos were able to associate with other chosen birds.” (Rose and Croft 2020:8)

Journal article
Rose PE, Croft DP. 2020. Evaluating the social networks of four flocks of captive flamingos over a five-year period: Temporal, environmental, group and health influences on assortment. Behavioural Processes 175: 104118 10 pp. Behavioural ProcessesRose PE, Croft DP

Dagg AI. 2011. Animal Friendships. Cambridge, Great Britain: Cambridge University Press. Animal FriendshipsDagg AI

Web page
University of Exeter. 2020. Flamingos form firm friendships. Press Release. Press ReleaseUniversity of Exeter

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