Flamingo Roundup: Inside Look

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For my previous blog post, I wrote about why we have a Flamingo Roundup at the San Diego Zoo, how we corral them, and how a keeper moves the flamingo through the vaccination and check-up process. The first two years that I was a part of the roundup, I was a “handler” who took an individual flamingo through the assemblyline process. Those first experiences made the roundup one of my top five favorite days of the year (and that includes Thanksgiving and my birthday!). As much as I enjoyed my previous experiences, nothing prepared me for the opportunity I was given at this year’s Flamingo Roundup.

A few weeks before the roundup, I asked my supervisor if I would be able to be a “catcher” this year. I loved the “handler” experience because of the quality time I got to spend with a few flamingos while bringing them from station to station. But I also liked the idea of being one of the two “catchers” who stay in the holding pen and catch the flamingos to pass them off to the handlers. When the big day came, I was thrilled to hear I would be given the chance to get wing slapped, pinched, and have muddy water splashed into my face. I couldn’t have been more excited!

Imagine what the Zoo’s Flamingo Lagoon looked like just before 7:30 a.m. on April 6: the equipment is set up; the barricades are in place. Quietly hiding behind them are the vets, vet techs, and bird keepers. Five keepers slowly walk along the edge of the exhibit. The birds have known something was fishy for the last hour, but they now see the encroaching humans and perk up. The relatively quiet exhibit becomes a constant calling of flamingos, ducks, screamers, and ibis.

The five keepers form a loose line on the back wall of the exhibit and start walking the flock toward the barricades. At first, the flock is willing to walk away from the keepers because the barricades are distant and unassuming. As the birds get closer to the mouth of the holding pen, they change their minds and start to look for holes in the human line. Keepers shuffle side to side to make it appear that there is no way through. The other species that have become caught between the barricades and the line of keepers suddenly realize that only the flamingos are being corralled. In a mass blur of feathers, the ducks, geese, and ibis race between the keepers, who allow them to speed past. As the keepers get closer, the flamingos start to file into the holding pen created by the barricades that circle around a section of the pool. One of the keepers quickly closes the gate and locks the flock into the pen. Whew!

The excitement is just beginning, though. Clad in chest waders, coworker Athena and I walk into the holding pen to separate a small group of about five flamingos from the larger flock. Athena, who has done this a number of times, shows me how to cut out a small group and move them toward the even smaller catching pen. Once the small group is in the catching pen, we are to grab the flamingos and pass them off to the handlers.

I wish I could say that this part was easy and brush it off as “no big deal,” but I can’t. Corralling the skittish flamingos wasn’t too difficult, but catching them was tough! I found out that if you want to be a good “catcher,” you have to learn a few things:

1) You are going to get wing-slapped…in the face…and there’s nothing you can do about it.

2) You are going to get “flamingo pinched” (aka bit), and that’s also okay.

3) After you have control of the bird’s body, you then want to get control of its wings.

4) When you have the wings and body sorted out, you can then fold up its legs. If you have done this correctly, you can hold the bird as if it were a very fragile football. This leaves your other hand free to hold the bird’s serpentine-like neck, helpful if you want to receive fewer “pinches.”

After handing off a few dozen birds, I feel that I’m starting to get the hang of catching the body of the bird and controlling the wings, but I’m still having difficulty folding the bird’s long and delicate legs so that they are safely tucked to their belly. My supervisor, Amy, sees this and helps me out. She points out that flamingos have some strong muscles, which make it hard to force their legs into any position they are resisting. Amy shows me that if I hold the bird in a relaxed position, it calms down and allows me to tuck its legs without a fight. (The cool things I learn at work, huh?)

We continue catching group after group of flamingos; some are feisty while others are calm. Some stand at almost 6 feet (1.8 meters) tall while others are barely 4 feet (1.2 meters). Most of them are as healthy as can be, but some are old birds and have known ailments that make us extra careful of their left wing, right leg, etc. Every moment is a learning experience, and I love it.

About 45 minutes after we started, Amy, Athena, and I finish rounding up the last one. The three of us are soaked, sore, and coming down from our adrenaline high, but we feel a sense of accomplishment, too: in those exciting 60 minutes, 86 flamingos were weighed, vaccinated, checked out, and released back into their exhibit…until next year!

A special thanks to Janice, Athena, Amy, and Joop for their support and encouragement!

Mike Grue is a senior keeper (and now a “catcher”) at the San Diego Zoo.