Originally created 07/27/06

Flamingo chicks join zoo's ranks



COLUMBIA - No. 23 attacks every creature in sight, straining to peck even when held back by friendly hands. No. 4 is calm, self-sufficient. Needs no attention. Fast learning curve. No. 5 wants to eat all the time. Begs for food even right after eating.

Seems baby flamingos can be as different as baby people.

Riverbanks Zoo's bird keepers have been especially busy in recent weeks with the hatching of 15 flamingo chicks from eggs imported from Hialeah Park in South Florida. They don't have names yet, just numbered bands on their legs.

Hundreds of flamingos, part of the ambience of the now-closed Hialeah Park horse racing facility, still live in the track infield. The American Zoo and Aquarium Association has encouraged zoos to raise eggs harvested from nests at Hialeah, helping to diversify the genetic pool in zoo populations, said Martin Vince, bird curator at Riverbanks.

Keepers from Riverbanks drove to Hialeah several weeks ago and returned with 20 eggs in an incubator plugged into their vehicle's cigarette lighter. Three of the eggs were not fertile, and two died at the zoo.

The other 15 hatched, the first on July 4, and the last on July 17.

It will be several weeks before the birds can join the other 38 flamingos in the exhibit outside of the birdhouse. In the meantime, the chicks, and their keepers, are learning new things every day.

The chicks stab their beaks into the water and sneeze. Apparently, that's how the messy eaters clear the food from their nostrils. Mr. Vince never had noticed that behavior in the zoo's flamingo population.

But the major difference between the Hialeah chicks and Riverbanks chicks is their individuality.

"This one doesn't beg," keeper Angela Hardy said while six birds stretched their legs during an exercise outing behind the Bird Center, "but this one begs constantly. They have such different personalities."

Mr. Vince's theory is that parents keep personalities in check.

"All you see is well-behaved flamingos with their parents because their parents are constantly correcting them," he said.

But even though the Hialeah chicks are growing up without parents, experience gained at other zoos shows a large group of chicks will learn the important flamingo lessons by instinct or imitation, Mr. Vince said.