CINCINNATI -- When two of the youngest members of the Cincinnati Zoo’s interpretive collection burst onto the scene, visitors couldn’t help but stop to watch the adorable pair. As the 2- and 3-week-old fuzzy gray chicks darted about, head aviculture keeper Jenny Gainer fielded questions from the curious crowd.
“They’re baby greater flamingos,” she said. "If you look at their long neck and legs, you can kind of tell what they are.”
For the next few months, Gainer will be out with the chicks in the morning to help desensitize the pair to unfamiliar noises and people. Once they’re completely comfortable with visitors and their surroundings, the babies will join four adult flamingos on meet-and-greet morning walks around the zoo.
“It’s all about being close enough to care,” she said. “People may not care about flamingos until they can come over and pet a baby and see they’re so cute. Then they want to know all about flamingos.”
In the next few weeks, the chicks’ adult feathers will begin growing in to replace their fuzzy down. In terms of their gray color, Gainer said, it takes up to two years before flamingos’ feathers begin turning pink due to their diet of shellfish, krill and algae.
“Greater flamingos are the palest species of flamingos, so they won’t get really pink, but they will have some pink tinting to them along with some white and black on their primary feathers,” she said. “So if you see the big gray birds out walking around with interpretive, those are the babies.”
In order to create a bond with the chicks, Gainer said, the zoo staff hand-reared the pair from the moment they hatched in the bird nursery. For the interpretive collection, the staff pull eggs that are considered not as genetically valuable; in most cases, they leave the babies to be raised by their parents. But, she said, parent-reared birds would find it difficult to adjust to being around humans and foreign sounds.
“It’s important to start that process with humans from the time they hatch, because they’ll pretty much imprint on the people immediately, which is why they’re following us around,” she said.
Although the hand-reared flamingos feel comfortable with people, they feel equally comfortable with others of their species, said Maura Messerly, manager of wild encounters.
Following their morning walk, the interpretive birds spend the rest of the day with other flamingos at the pool in the Africa exhibit. Because flamingos are colony animals that can number in the thousands in the wild, the interpretive birds innately adjust to others of their species.
“They mix in really well with the exhibit flamingos. Even though they were hand-raised, they’re all still one big happy flamboyance,” she said. “We do call a group of flamingos a flamboyance – it’s a super fun word, I think, to describe their group.”
The four adult interpretive flamingos include Cha Cha, Hula, Mambo and Tango. Messerly said all the zoo’s flamingos were given dance names because they stamp their feet to stir up food particles in the mud, which resembles dancing. Visitors can easily spot Mambo, as he’s the only male and the showman of the group.
“He definitely has a big personality,” she said. “Mambo is the first one to greet us when we walk in, but he’ll mingle with the others, too. I think he must just have the type of personality – and we all know people who are just so social with everyone, so that’s Mambo."
As one of the most common flamingo species, greater flamingos migrate on a number of continents and fly by the thousands from place to place with an awkward grace, Messerly said. Because they live in both warm and cooler climates, the interpretive flamingos will go for their daily walks unless temperatures fall below freezing. She said they look forward to their daily exercise; they anxiously run over when the zoo staff arrives in the mornings.
“I do think they recognize a zoo shirt,” she said. “They just love people, so sometimes they’ll just be interested in hanging around with people even if they’re not in a zoo shirt – maybe because we have legs. I think that they think that we’re funny-looking flamingos – I don’t think that they think that they’re people.”
While out on their meet-and-greets, she said, visitors often want to touch the birds. She explains that flamingos spend most of their day cleaning and preening their feathers, so they’re incredibly fussy about their appearance.
“It’s sort of like messing up their hair,” she said. “They even try to preen us sometimes; they like shoelaces, or sort of fix your pants, and that’s them preening you. They want to make sure that your feathers are looking straight, too.”
Besides their daily walks, Messerly said, the flamingos in the interpretive collection participate in events including visits to schools, organizations and even weddings.
“They’ve been part of a bridal party before,” she said. “They’re a whole lot of fun. Even if you can’t touch them, it’s still something. Standing eye-to-eye with a flamingo is pretty cool, especially if they decide to preen you.”
As for the two newest members, they’ll continue working with Gainer, learning to follow her legs and clapping sounds. They'll practice just outside the Children's Zoo until they feel totally comfortable with their surroundings, and eventually they, too, will get their official dance names, Messerly said.
“We do that by a vote process from the zoo staff,” she said. “I heard some of the suggestions were Salsa and Calypso. There are some really creative names, but some of the more popular dance moves of today are going to be eliminated. There’s not going to be a Nae Nae – only the classic dances.”