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Inside the Heroic Mission to Save Thousands of Baby Flamingos

Flamingo eggs were strewn across the ground, abandoned by their parents. Without aid, they'd all die.

By Anna Funk
Aug 27, 2019 4:34 PMDec 13, 2019 5:32 PM
Lesser Flamingos, Lake Bogoria, Kenya - Paul McKenzie
An adult lesser flamingo wades in front of juveniles in Kenya's Lake Bogoria. These birds gather to breed by the thousands at just a handful of wetlands worldwide. The species is near threatened, partly due to their limited options for nesting sites. (Credit: Paul McKenzie)


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The incessant “eep, eep, eep” of hundreds of hungry flamingo chicks bounces off the concrete walls of a feeding room at the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) wildlife sanctuary in Cape Town, South Africa. Teri Grendzinski reaches into a pen and plucks out a fluffy, pale gray chick. The bird opens its mouth eagerly as her syringe squirts out a kind of warm shrimp milkshake.

It’s noisy, hot work. To keep the orphans warm, their rooms are heated to a balmy 86 degrees Fahrenheit. And there are so many birds, volunteers have to feed them around the clock in shifts, mixing endless shakes and bringing in a new group of chicks as soon as one is finished. 

Scenes like this were common during the flamingo rescue effort that took place earlier this year. “[It was] overwhelming — in a good way,” says Grendzinski, who has raised wild birds at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh for 25 years. “There was so much work to be done. So much to be learned. … And we were running — sitting down was not an option.”

Drought forced lesser flamingo parents to abandon their nests at Kamfers Dam in South Africa. (Credit: Linja Allen)

The trouble started back in January, when drought and poor infrastructure sent water levels plummeting at a South African reservoir called the Kamfers Dam. It’s one of just a handful of breeding sites worldwide for the lesser flamingo, the smallest of the six species of the leggy, pink bird.

The drought’s timing couldn’t have been worse — thousands of chicks had just hatched. Their parents, unable to feed themselves, abandoned the breeding grounds, leaving their helpless chicks behind. By the time volunteers got there, the site was “littered with the bodies of hundreds of dead chicks,” The Associated Press reported in February. “The cheeps of chicks trapped inside overheating eggs [could] be heard.”

Rescue centers took in almost 2,000 chicks. (Credit: Gavan Mack)

Wildlife officials stepped in. Ten local conservation groups each agreed to take in hundreds of chicks. And organizations around the world with experience raising flamingos, including many zoos in the U.S., sent resources, supplies and even people — like Grendzinski — to aid in the effort.

Now, researchers are realizing that this effort to save the birds will also provide them with a rare chance to learn more about this near-threatened species’ mysterious behaviors in the wild.

Adapted to Peril

Although lesser flamingos are the most abundant flamingo in the world, with a population in the millions, they’re also one of the most in danger of extinction. That’s because the species breeds at only six different wetlands in the world.

Lesser flamingos are colonial breeders, which means they arrive at breeding sites by the tens of thousands to build their nests and raise their young. The most important of these sites is at Lake Natron in Tanzania, where about three-fourths of the entire species gather to mate. At its wettest, it’s 35 miles long — bigger than Lake Tahoe. But more often, much of the lake bed is dried up, covered with a bizarre red crust.

The baby birds were hand-fed for weeks; once sufficiently grown. (Credit: Gavan Mack)

The shallow waters here are fed by a mineral-rich spring that, combined with frequent evaporation, has resulted in an incredibly salty, alkaline body of water — with a pH somewhere between Windex and hand soap. 

It might sound like a weird place to call home, but flamingos love harsh wetlands like these. The caustic water keeps most other animals away — including predators — while the birds’ tough, scaly legs allow them to hang out with no problems and breed in peace. Plus, one of the few other life-forms that flourishes here also happens to be the bird’s favorite food: cyanobacteria. It’s a photosynthesizing microorganism also referred to as blue-green algae, though this particular species is a deep red: It’s what gives these lesser flamingos their signature pink coloring.

(Credit: Jay Smith)

Lake Natron is named for the mineral, natron, that collects there. But it’s not the only lake like this that the birds frequent; some of their other favorite breeding sites are chemically similar to Natron, called soda lakes. They’re full of this sodium-rich combination of minerals called sodas, including sodium bicarbonate, which we know as baking soda. Lesser flamingos also breed at salt pans, a similar kind of “here today, gone tomorrow” wetland that collects salt. Water levels and resources fluctuate, but the birds are adapted with a nomadic lifestyle. If one wetland dries up or runs out of food, they’ll move to another one.

These are the conditions flamingos evolved under, says Felicity Arengo, associate director of the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at New York’s American Museum of Natural History, and a coordinator for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) flamingo specialist group. But these wetlands are some of Earth’s most threatened ecosystems.

Once sufficiently grown, the flamingos were ready to be released back into the wild. (Credit: Gavan Mack)

Climate models project that some places will get wetter, while others will be drier, so it’s a lose-lose outcome for these shallow habitats. They “are very vulnerable to these extreme changes in weather,” says Arengo.

And even such hardy birds can only take so much. “Now, with climate change, these variations will become more extreme,” she says. “And although the flamingos are adapted to having these options, at some point, they’ll run out of options.”

That scenario has already started playing out. Shortly after the rescue back in January, 5,000 more chicks were abandoned at Kamfers Dam in February due to drought at a separate part of the same site; luckily, these chicks were just old enough to make it through on their own. On the flip side, when the water is too high, the birds either can’t build their nests or, if the timing is wrong, just-built nests are flooded, drowning eggs and chicks. The latter happened in 2009 at the same location.

Near Threatened

It’s not just water levels the birds have to worry about. Populations of the microorganisms that flamingos eat can also fluctuate dramatically in these shallow lakes, but researchers are still figuring out why. One team that’s focusing on cyanobacteria in particular suspects that outbreaks of cyanophages — or viruses that attack the algae — could be a main culprit.

Regardless of what’s causing these fluctuations, they have a big impact on flamingo populations. When algae populations crash, the birds have to move on or starve. Alternatively, when the algae experience abnormally large blooms, they can poison the flock: Almost 44,000 dead were counted at Tanzania’s Lake Manyara in 2004.  The nesting colonies are also susceptible to disease outbreaks. Over 1,000 birds died of avian botulism at Kamfers in 2013.

The cause of other mass die-offs remains a mystery. After 30,000 birds died in a single week in 2008 at Lake Bogoria in Kenya, researchers searching for cyanotoxins in the dead birds couldn’t find any.

On top of all that, the more pressing concern is how humans affect the birds, says Doug Harebottle, an ornithologist at Sol Plaatje University, which is just a few miles from Kamfers Dam. “I think there are other factors at play that could probably be a higher risk [for the birds], and that’s habitat loss and habitat degradation.”

Despite their threatened status, lesser flamingos are the most abundant flamingo in the world, with a population in the millions across Africa and parts of India. Here, a group gathers on a small volcanic island in Lake Turkana, Kenya. (Credit: Paul McKenzie)

Lake Natron was recently under threat from a proposed soda ash mine. Workers would extract sodium carbonate in the lake so it could be sold as a chemical additive. (Sodium carbonate is used to manufacture a wide range of products from glass, to foods, to soaps.) But the project was relocated after a years-long battle. The Kamfers Dam site saw similar threats from a proposed housing development, and recent local media reports say there’s a new proposal in the works to develop adjacent to the site. Despite the flamingos’ adaptations, if a development drained water levels or brought new pollution that wiped out a breeding site, it would be bad news for the dwindling birds.

Another challenge is that there’s much scientists still don’t know about flamingos. “It’s a difficult species to work with in the wild,” says Harebottle. “We’re going on a lot of assumption work. Do birds that are born at the dam come back to breed at their [birthplace]? That is unknown.”

That’s because their remote breeding locations make them hard to study. The Kamfers Dam site is unique because it’s so close to a major town — Kimberley — and the nesting birds are visible from shore.

And it’s precisely this reason that made the January rescue mission at Kamfers Dam possible in the first place. Never before had a mass chick-abandonment been noticed with enough time left to save the chicks.

Every Bird Matters

When volunteers first arrived to Kamfers earlier this year, they were met by an eerie scene. A flamingo’s nest looks like a mini volcano made of mud and stones. And at a major breeding ground like this, each nest is only a few feet from its closest neighbor. The nests dotted the area by the thousands. But instead of being surrounded by a noisy flock of parents, atop every nest was either a single unhatched egg or a single newborn chick, quietly struggling in discomfort.

The teams got to work. Volunteers loaded 30 chicks at a time into small, flat cardboard boxes with air holes poked in the top.

These were transported by truck and eventually airplane to the different rescue centers across South Africa.  “Every bird matters for the survival of this species,” says Pilar Fish, director of veterinary medicine at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh.

The steps the team at SANCCOB took were also crucial to the mission’s success: Each chick was outfitted with a microchip with a unique identifier. And before every feeding, each bird was scanned and weighed to ensure it was given the correct amount of formula that would keep it growing at just the right rate — about 10 percent of its body weight each day.

In the wild, these chicks would be eating crop milk. That’s a thick, protein-rich substance made in an organ — the crop — inside their parents and regurgitated to feed the young.

Lesser flamingos engage in a communal pre-breeding display at Lake Nakuru in Kenya. Their pink color comes from the cyanobacteria they eat: a type of photosynthetic plankton called a blue-green algae that’s actually red. (Credit: Paul McKenzie)

But at the flamingo rescue center, that task fell to a kitchen staffed with volunteers who blended concoctions of their own: hard-boiled egg yolks, fish, prawns, shrimp and extra vitamins. These were then loaded into hundreds of syringes, ready to pop into hungry flamingo mouths. 

On top of the hundreds of shrimpshakes administered each day, there was an absurd amount of cleaning to do: Every chick was cleaned after being fed, and every pen was cleaned after each round of feeding.

And, since the hatchlings were to be released back into the wild once they became self-sufficient, the volunteers had to take extra steps to prevent the birds from imprinting on them. They wore black gloves, pink compression sleeves, and pink T-shirts as they fed the chicks to try to mimic the colors of a flamingo parent.

Hope for the Lesser Flamingo?

Volunteers describe this year’s rescue as a fluke event. Leaky pipes and broken pump stations plagued an attached wastewater treatment plant during a drought this year. That cut the birds off from their water source and starved them of food. And all of that happened at exactly the wrong time — just after chicks hatched, but before they could take care of themselves. 

Despite this year’s struggles, Mark Anderson, the CEO of BirdLife South Africa who coordinated the effort, is optimistic about the future of the Kamfers Dam breeding site. The infrastructure problems are now being fixed, he says, so the water supply should remain more consistent for future flamingos. “If the wastewater treatment works was properly functioning, we could ensure enough water in the lake, independent of rainfall,” Anderson says.

Once the flamingos were grown, the work of the volunteers caring for the birds came to an end. The surviving 700 or so birds were packed up and flown back to Kimberley to prepare for their release back into the wild. The birds were quarantined to make sure they’d be well enough for the transition and banded with a big yellow anklet so researchers can keep an eye on them from afar. Then, a few at a time, they were released to rejoin the rest of their old flock.

Harebottle was there when the first 50 birds were released in early May. It was a test run of sorts, to see what would happen when the holding pen was opened for the first time. Would the captive-reared birds rejoin the flock? Or would they be imprinted on the humans? 

“I think everybody had a big smile on their face when the birds were released,” says Harebottle. The bird pioneers split into three groups. A few poked around, looking for food near the release pen. Another group flew off into the distance. But the last group joined the flock.

“I think that was a really good sign,” says Harebottle. “It was the sign that maybe, there’s a very good chance, that what we’re doing is going to work.”

The next morning, Harebottle says, things got even better. When a volunteer birder went to check on the flamingos, she counted 41 yellow bands on the edge of the Kamfers flock.

The rest of the birds were released in regular intervals over the course of the next few weeks. Volunteers are now keeping an eye on the yellow-banded birds, while researchers track 20 of them with location-tracking GPS backpacks. 

This information will be unprecedented, and could start to answer important questions about the lives of lesser flamingos both at Kamfers and more broadly. Researchers will be able to learn about the birds’ movement patterns and how flexible they really are as their breeding sites wax and wane.

Most of all, conservationists hope the next breeding season will be more kind to these birds. Not too wet, not too dry — just right for a new crew of cute, floofy chicks to drink real crop milk from their parents.

Anna Funk is assistant editor at Discover. This article originally appeared in print as "The Flamingo's Future."

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