Flamingo Chicks Need Help?

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Josh wades across to the nest mounds.

It started out as a normal, cool morning at the San Diego Zoo, and I was scheduled to work in Flamingo Lagoon that day. It was a special day for me because it was going to be the first flamingo chick “processing” that I have ever assisted with (see post, Flamingo Egg-stravaganza). I figured that since I have been trained to safely catch and handle eagles and condors, handling a little flamingo chick should be a piece of cake. Was I in for a surprise!

At 7:45 a.m., my supervisor, one of our vet technicians, and I met at the Lagoon. I was to wade through the water over to the island, retrieve one of the flamingo chicks, and bring him out of the exhibit to be processed (weighed and given a microchip ID and quick visual exam). Here lies the problem: there were three older chicks still on the island with attentive parents, five newly hatched chicks on their nest mounds, plus the little one that I was going to be grabbing! The trick was going to be getting the chick that I needed without disturbing the “flamboyance” of flamingos.

I slowly walked through the water, but as soon as I started getting close to the island, almost all of the birds starting leaving their mounds. (This was not a concern, as the birds would hastily return to their nests as soon as I left the area.) I grabbed the selected chick and marked the mound so that I knew exactly where to return him when we were done. As I did this, another chick two rows over came off his mound! I needed to hurry so we could get our work done with the chick and return it quickly to its mound.

Josh attempts to rescue a flamingo chick.

The processing went smoothly. I went to put the little one back using the same route I had used to retrieve him, but as I put this little guy back, he would not stay on his mound! He just jumped off one side, and I would put him back on, and he would flop off the other side. After several attempts to get him to stay, I decided to let him be, and I quickly left the island. As expected, all the other birds soon came back to their respective nests.
Unfortunately for this little flamingo, his parents had built a very tall mound. One side of the mound that the chick slid down was smooth as ice. The mother was standing on the mound trying to encourage her baby back up on the mound, and Dad was standing above the baby, keeping him safe from other curious neighbors. The youngster tried and tried to climb back up; it was painful to watch.

In between the mounds, trenches develop from where the parents pull up the mud to make the mounds. The parents didn’t feel comfortable brooding it down in those trenches, so I called my supervisor to have a look at this chick and devise a game plan.

Only trying to help!

Normally a flamingo chick stays on the mound for the first four to seven days or until it is strong enough to stand and walk around. The chicks’ down covering is not enough to keep them warm when it gets cold outside; they need the parents to brood them and keep them warm. This is why we were concerned about these little ones being off of their mounds at day two or three.

After a few hours, the parents still weren’t brooding the chick, so we decided to intervene and attempt to put the chick back on the mound. It looked so easy! I would just tip toe out to the island swiftly and quietly and just pop that baby back up on its mound. As soon as I got to the island there were flamingo chicks bouncing off left and right. I was able to put a few of the chicks back on their mounds and they stayed, but the chick we were watching, and that other little one that came off in the morning, just weren’t going to have it.

I made multiple trips across that water attempting to get them to stay but with no luck. Zoo guests were pointing to chicks popping off, and my supervisor was riding shotgun telling me which way to move to collect the next bird that popped off. We decided to quit before things got worse, and let the little guys just stay off their mounds. The younger of the two chicks on the ground made his way up and down onto several smaller mounds: up a mound, then down a mound, until he finally settled on one, and the parents accepted his choice. That was great to see!

Finally, the parents of the other little one decided to give it a try in the trench and started brooding and feeding the chick. We continued to watch them into the evening to make sure that those two little ones were okay. We were “tickled pink” that all nine flamingo chicks were warm and fed the next morning, even if not on their mounds.

Josh Zelt is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo.