Animal Moments

In the Enrichment Kitchen

January 7, 2008

Today in the enrichment kitchen at the zoo, I met the youngest of three Chilean flamingo chicks (Phoenicopterus chilensis) being hand-reared by the bird keeper staff.

In the wild, flamingo chicks develop strength and coordination by following their mothers on frequent walks. Since our chicks are being hand-reared, their keepers take them on walks around the building where they are housed; itís much too cold outdoors for the chicks at this time of year.

When we were told that the chick was coming to visit the kitchen, I took a seat on the step stool. The keeper and the bird came through the door, and the chick walked immediately and purposefully right up to me. He seemed quite happy in the warmth of my body. While vocalizing constantly and loudly (it sounds somewhat like barking with your mouth closed), he nestled quietly between my knees for several minutes and gently explored my sweatshirt front and sleeve with his beak.

At just about two months old, the male chick is mostly covered with soft gray down. The fuzz is still an inch long on the head and neck, but it is starting to break up a bit on his body to reveal the marvelous pinky-orange feathers developing underneath. I was struck by the firmness and substance of his body between my hands.

Instances of successful captive breeding of Chilean flamingos are few, and our bird keepers have been in constant touch with the only other North American zoo (San Diego) which has raised Chileans to adulthood. Both groups are still learning, as much by trial and error as by received wisdom, how best to rear and care for these wonderful birds.

I asked a bird keeper once whether she would miss the chicks or remain attached to them after they had rejoined the flock. She said no, because the birds are not individuals once they join the flock; as she put it, they ďall share one brain.Ē

All the same, I canít help but imagine that a year or so from now Iíll be strolling by the Chilean flamingo yard, and one of the birds will break away from the flock and hurry over to greet me.