First Flamingo Hatch of 2012

Flamingo mother 30 Black Left watches over her newest chick.

Our famous flamingo pair has done it again! The San Diego Zoo’s flamingo breeding season kicked off on April 24 when the first egg was laid by none other than my favorite girl and oldest female, 30 Black Left (see post Our Oldest Female Flamingo). She and her mate, 26 White Right, did the usual fantastic job that they do with incubating duties, sitting tightly on their precious egg. Like clockwork, 28 days later, the first flamingo chick of 2012 hatched on Tuesday, May 22. The incubation period for flamingo eggs is between 27 to 31 days.

When I went out to the exhibit at 6:30 that morning, I saw that the egg had pipped. A small hole had started the hatching process, and I could see the little beak diligently working on breaking out. By 10:30 a.m., the chick had chiseled half way around the shell, and by 2 p.m. it was free! Mom and Dad have been brooding the chick very tightly, keeping it nice and warm. By Wednesday morning, the chick was vocalizing, begging to be fed (Mom happily obliged); in the afternoon it was already trying to stand.

It never ceases to amaze me how incredible these birds really are, and after six years as their keeper, it never gets old. I am just as excited with each and every hatch as I was the first time I ever saw one. It warms my heart that our sweet old girl continues to be such a great mother and wonderful example to the rest of the flock. She will be 53 on June 23. Just as much credit goes to her mate, at only 20 years of age this year. He may be 33 years younger, but he is a great flamingo dad, and I truly believe that their bond is what is keeping her going strong!

I’ll be checking on the chick tomorrow morning (Saturday, May 26) to make sure all is well. I anticipate that sometime next week the chick will be off of its nest mound and starting to explore. They grow quickly, so you definitely want to see the sweet little ones before they get big.

I can’t forget about the rest of the flock: our second chick of 2012 hatched yesterday (Thursday, May 24). We hope to hatch more chicks this season, with about half of those being hatched and hand-reared at our Avian Propagation Center. These hand-reared birds will be joining the flamingos that are currently part of our Backstage Pass experience. If you haven’t had the opportunity to feed the sweet flamingos there, it is a life experience that can’t be missed! Even though I get to work with flamingos every day, I still had to partake in the fun and share with family members. They loved it, and so will you!

Athena Wilson is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Screamer Family Returns.


Get Invited to Festival of Flight Tweet-up

Guests of our Reptilemania tweet-up got up close with our Galápagos tortoises and took home a free snake plush!

UPDATE: All spots for our Festival of Flight tweet-up have been filled! Follow us on twitter to be part of the next tweet-up.

If you follow us on Twitter, you know we like to hook up our followers with free stuff, but by far the best perk is our tweet-ups. Tweet-ups are special on-grounds meet-ups just for our social media followers, and they usually involve up-close animal interactions and presentations not available to other guests. For our Reptilemania tweet-up, guests got to touch one of our slithery animal ambassadors, feed our Galápagos tortoises, and take home a free snake plush. For our Koalapalooza tweet-up we tracked “koalas” (the plush kind) using the same equipment that our researchers use in the field, and got up close with a kookaburra and, of course, a koala.

We’ve also had tweet-ups at the Safari Park. During Butterfly Jungle, our tweet-up guests were granted access to the event through a closed-off side entrance, avoiding the line and enjoying a private presentation of a few creepy crawlies by the Park’s insect keeper. The Park’s Cheetah Run tweet-up was even sweeter. It offered guests the full VIP treatment, allowing them to watch the run from our special VIP viewing zone and meet a cheetah up close, which is something we normally charge $40 extra for!

Guests of our Cheetah Run tweet-up got the full VIP treatment

We also hold raffles and give away free stuff at most of our tweet-ups, with prizes ranging from animal plushes to tickets for super-awesome behind-the-scenes experiences. For example, at our most recent #AnimalStars tweet-up, we raffled off five panda adoption packages and one grand prize of four Backstage Pass tickets. Check out this stellar blog and video for more on our last tweet-up.

The best part about our tweet-ups is that they’re FREE with admission. If you’re a member, consider them a perk of your membership. As you may know, Festival of Flight is coming November 10 through 13, 2011. We had a tweet-up for last year’s event involving a guided tour of the Scripps’ and Owens’ aviaries by one of our bird keepers and up-close bird viewing, but we wanted to offer something even better this year. That’s why on Saturday, November 12, at 10 a.m., we’re letting you loose (with supervision of course) in our Backstage Pass flamingo zone for some up-close flamingo fun! You’ll also enjoy presentations of a few other feathered friends by our expert Backstage Pass trainers…but there’s a catch. Because of the limited space in our flamingo zone, we can only invite 23 guests to join us for this tweet-up. So how do you get an invite? Listen close. Make sure you’re able and willing to attend on Saturday, November 12, at 10 a.m. (Zoo admission required). Then follow us on twitter and tweet these exact words:

I want to go to the @sandiegozoo #FestOfFlight tweet-up for some #FlamingoFun!

The first 23 people who tweet the above will get a direct message from us with an invite to the tweet-up. If you want to bring a guest or your kids, let us know and we’ll try to make accommodations depending on space available, but no promises. We apologize for the limited space, but we’re super excited to introduce you to our beautiful winged friends. Now hurry and get tweeting!

Matt Steele is the social media planner for San Diego Zoo Global. Read his previous post, Facebook Winner joins us in the Field.


Our Oldest Flamingo Female

30 Black Left.

In my last post (Happy Birthday, Flamingos!), I mentioned that our oldest female Caribbean flamingo, 30 Black Left, has a unique story. (Remember, we refer to the flamingos by their ID band’s number, color, and placement on the leg.) She hatched right here at the San Diego Zoo on June 23, 1959, making her 52 years old. Her reproductive history is a little unclear prior to 2005, but I can tell you something that makes her extra special, besides being the oldest female—almost every year she lays the first egg of the season!  The exceptions are in 2007, when she laid the third egg of the season (but it was the first to hatch a chick that year!), and in 2008, and I’ll tell you why in just a bit.


Since 2005, she has parented six chicks with the same male (26 White Right). This male is only 19 years old; he hatched at SeaWorld San Diego on June 1, 1992, and came to us in 1994. As with the oldest male in our flock (4 Green Right), they have one offspring who was hand raised and is currently residing in the Zoo’s Urban Jungle. If you participate in our Backstage Pass adventure and get to hand feed the flamingos, look for 246 White Right; he is their son, hatched in 2009. 30 Black Left and her mate are also internationally represented, having both their chicks from 2006 and 2007 shipped to the Emperor Valley Zoo in Trinidad in early March. Currently, they are incubating their second egg of the season. 30 Black Left laid the first egg of the season again this year, but it was not viable. The egg they are incubating now is due to hatch between July 7 and July 11. Fingers crossed that this one will hatch!

Now, why she wasn’t with 26 White Right in 2008? Early February of that year, the entire flock was moved to the Zoo’s Jennings Center for Zoological Medicine while we had some exhibit maintenance done. During that hospital stay, 26 White Right sustained an injury to his trachea that would require surgery, a tracheal resection. Having a world-class veterinary staff, we were not worried. However, this meant that he would have to stay at the hospital and recover while the rest of the flock returned to their newly renovated exhibit.

30 Black Left holds her own with the kids!

With breeding season quickly approaching, I became nervous that he would not be back in time for the pair to have their “first egg of the season!” All the while, a young male not even three years old started showing interest in 30 Black Left. Surprisingly, she did not refuse his advances. Then again, how could she have realized that her beloved mate would return? As far as she knew, he was gone.  And even though flamingos are usually monogamous, if something happens to their mate, they will quickly form a new bond so as to not miss a breeding opportunity. I was saddened by what was happening, but had not lost hope. 26 White Right returned to the exhibit on April 1, 2008—just 12 days after his surgery! After his release, I was sure that 30 Black Left would break the bond with the young male and return to her old mate. But wait—she didn’t even seem to recognize him!

Was his vocalization different due to the surgery and that was why she didn’t seem to know who he was? She ended up laying the second egg of the season soon thereafter; it was infertile, likely the result of the male being so young. Flamingos typically reach reproductive maturity between three and five years of age, and it usually takes a few tries before they are successful. Without any other choice, and in order to not miss a breeding opportunity, 26 White Right bonded with a new female. They had an egg together, but it did not hatch. It seemed that the bond between 30 Black Left and 26 White Right was broken forever, and this broke my heart—a pair I had seen so tightly bonded since I started working with the flock in 2006 was no more.

When the breeding season ended in 2008, since neither newly bonded pair had hatched an egg, they were free to roam about the exhibit since they did not have chick-rearing responsibilities. I started noticing that 30 Black Left and 26 White Right were spending time together again. With each day that passed, their bond seemed to get stronger until they appeared to be back to their old behaviors; they were almost never apart. During the breeding season of 2009, they were definitely back together again, and she laid the first egg of the season. I was so thrilled! How amazing is nature? And how awesome to have witnessed the strength of a bond between two very special birds?! They’ve been inseparable ever since.

Athena Wilson is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


Happy Birthday, Flamingos!

This male is the oldest flamingo at the San Diego Zoo.

Today, June 23, is a very important day for the San Diego Zoo’s flamingo flock: it’s the birthday of the two oldest flamingos, which are exactly one year apart! In the wild, flamingos typically live to be between 20 and 30 years old. Remove predation, habitat destruction, and food scarcity and give them world-class veterinary care, and you can add at least 20 years to their lives! The oldest male flamingo hatched out right here at the San Diego Zoo on June 23, 1958, making him 53 years old. Exactly one year later, June 23, 1959, our oldest female hatched. Since then, they have both enjoyed extraordinary lives.

To tell individual birds apart, we put bands on their legs that may have a combination of letters, numbers, and colors. When possible, we try to band the males on the right leg and the females on the left leg. This is not always the case, depending on circumstances, but applies to the majority of avian individuals in the Zoo’s collection. I would like you to be able to pick out the birthday boy and girl on your next visit, but this is challenging when you’re searching a flock currently numbering 96 birds! But if you’re patient, you will be rewarded.

First, let me introduce you to our long-lived male. He has a green-colored band on his right leg with the number 4 on it. There are very few birds in the flock that have green bands anymore, so he won’t be too hard to find. We’ll call him “4 Green Right.” Males are also usually taller than females, so keeping that in mind will aid your search. His mate has a white-colored band on her left leg with a number 46 on it. If you see her first, he will likely be close by, unless they have an egg, in which case one of them will be incubating. They have had one egg together already this breeding season, but it was pulled due to infertility to give them another opportunity to lay a fertile egg. His mate is almost 13 years old and they have been together since 2009.

This pair has had two chicks together: one in 2009 that was hand-raised and can be hand-fed by you! He lives in the Zoo’s Urban Jungle and is part of our Backstage Pass experience. Look for his white band on the right leg with the number 243. The chick our pair had in 2010 is also a male and is on exhibit with the rest of the flock. When I looked back into our records, I discovered that 4 Green Right has parented at least 9 chicks since 1996. As a result of this, he is also a grandfather to 16 members of our flock. Not only is he currently well represented in our main exhibit and in the Urban Jungle, his female offspring from 2006 was recently sent to the Emperor Valley Zoo in Trinidad. His genes are being represented internationally as well!

Happy birthday, 30 Black Left!

Our long-lived female is one of my absolute favorite birds I’ve ever worked with (even though I try not to have favorites).  She has a beautiful and unique story that I don’t have time to go into today. Please check back for my next blog post, which will be just about her—she deserves it!

In the meantime, if you come to visit the birthday boy and girl before the next blog is posted, she is banded with a black band on her left leg with a number 30 on it (30 Black Left).  She is also currently incubating her second egg of the season with her mate, who is banded white, right leg, number 26. Look for either of them on the northwest end of the island where their current nest is located. Or if you see me in the exhibit feeding, she is usually standing close by.

Athena Wilson is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Flamingo Egg-stravaganza. http://blogs.sandiegozoo.org/2011/06/20/flamingo-egg-stravaganza/


Flamingo Chicks Need Help?

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.


Crested Screamer Family Update

The screamer family relaxes in an off-exhibit area.

For those of you who have been eagerly searching for our crested screamer family in the San Diego Zoo’s Flamingo Lagoon, I appreciate your patience. I wanted to make sure that our screamer family was doing well before updating everyone and hoped to have good news to report. And good news I have. The screamers’ second clutch consisted of only three eggs; amazingly, all three hatched! The first two chicks hatched on May 12, and the third chick hatched on May 13.

Three healthy, and hungry, screamer chicks!

Based on our unfortunate loss of the previous three chicks (see post Welcome to the World, Screamers), we had planned to move the family to our bird holding area where they could be protected from any potential dangers. The entire family was moved on May 14. The move went very well, thanks to my amazing coworkers in the Bird Department. Both screamer parents have been doing a great job caring for their chicks, as they have little to no disturbances to worry about in their current holding pen. They don’t have to worry about flamingos marching by their nest, ducks stealing their food, and, most importantly, native birds that are potential predators. The chicks are a month old now, and even though that may seem to be a decent age for a chick, they are extremely slow growers!

I don’t have an exact date as to when the family will be returning to its exhibit, as we want to make absolute sure that we have given them the best chance for success. I CAN say that it will be worth the wait, and it should be sometime soon. It will be the first time that the Flamingo Lagoon will be home to a family of 5 crested screamers, and with at least 10 flamingo kids running around as well, I’m sure there will be plenty of entertainment. I hope everyone will get along and the youngsters take after their father. Many of you are already aware that their mother is very aggressive and can make my job quite challenging☺.

Athena Wilson is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Sociable Weavers: Amazing Architects.


Flamingo Roundup: Inside Look

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.


Flamingo Roundup

Flamingos await their check-up in the holding area.

Once a year there is an event at the San Diego Zoo that is unlike any other. After weeks of preparation, three departments are mobilized, dozens of keepers are involved, almost a hundred birds are caught up, and everyone gets wet! The occasion? The annual Flamingo Roundup!

The Roundup happens in early spring each year, the best time to catch the flock of 86, because we avoid disturbing any breeding behavior that starts later in the season. As you may have guessed by watching our flock in the Zoo’s front plaza, flamingos can be a very skittish species; for that reason, we try to manage our flock passively.

A flamingo gets its West Nile virus vaccination.

So why do we catch the whole flock‑even the healthy ones‑once a year? They are all due for their West Nile virus (WNV) booster shot. Some believe that flamingos are more susceptible to WNV, because they live near the breeding ground of the virus’s carrier, mosquitoes, while others aren’t so sure. Whatever the reason, a booster shot is the best way to ensure that our flock stays healthy.

On April 6, 2011, a few dozen keepers came into work early to start the set-up process. With the help of our Buildings & Grounds Department, we moved about 15 barricades (covered in bubble wrap for the birds’ protection) into the Flamingo Exhibit. Using the barricades, the keepers created a funnel that lead into a holding pen. In addition to the barricades, we brought in a number of tables, medical supplies, information sheets, and a scale (which we have found to be more accurate than guessing at a bird’s weight).

The Flamingo Roundup crew in action!

Why do we need all this equipment for one shot? We only get to handle these birds once a year, so we make sure that we give them a full check-up when we have the chance. Once a flamingo is caught by one of the “catchers,” it is then passed to a “handler,” who holds the flamingo throughout the process and moves it from station to station.

The first station is the scale; the bird’s weight is recorded on an information card that corresponds to the bird’s ID band found on its leg. The handler then moves the bird to the second station, where it is given the West Nile vaccine. The third and final station is the general check-up; a vet checks out the bird’s beak, legs, toes, wings, feathers, eyes, ears, and everything in between. If the bird gets the “okay,” it is released into the exhibit, where it gets to join the other flamingos that have already been checked. It sounds like a simple and straightforward process, right? Ha! When it comes to flamingos, nothing is as easy as it seems.

Check back soon for my next installment to get a more in-depth look at what happens during the Flamingo Roundup!

Mike Grue is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Rhinoceros Hornbills: Chick Arrives.