Flamingos' Complex Social Lives Include Friends, Enemies and Maybe Even Frenemies

This story is part of Treehugger's news archive. Learn more about our news archiving process or read our latest news.
Flock of greater flamingos in Thane creek flamingo sanctuary in Mumbai. (Photo: Aneesh Kotwal/Shutterstock)

When you think of flamingos, you likely picture groups of them, their long legs half-submerged in the water. If you look closer, you'll notice two, three or more individuals clustering, so that the large mass seems to be made up of groups. Just like people at a beach or a park, flamingos have their squads too.

That makes sense, since according to a new study published in Behavior Processes, the social lives of flamingos rival that of humans.

Over five years, researchers have kept track of four different captive flamingo species — Caribbean, Chilean, Andean and lesser flamingos — at the Slimbridge Wetland Centre, part of the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT), the leading wetland conservation charity in the U.K. During that time they observed their relationships. It was already known that like many species of birds, flamingos pair-bond and stay bonded to their mates over time, and that was backed up by the researchers' observations.

A flamingo walking through shallow water
Flamingos have more complex social lives than you might guess and their relationships are long-lasting. (Photo: Ondrej Prosicky/Shutterstock)

But they also noticed friendships between same-sex flamingos, and kept track of groups that would hang out together over and over again. Also notable was that some flamingos would avoid certain individuals, indicating they definitely have preferences about who they spend time with. The relationships (both friends and enemies) were maintained over time, which is especially relevant as flamingos can live up to 50 or 60 years.

"Our results indicate that flamingo societies are complex. They are formed of long-standing friendships rather than loose, random connections," lead author of the study, Dr. Paul Rose, of the University of Exeter, told ZME Science.

Rose and his colleagues also kept track of the flamingos' health (they did this by examining their feet), to see if that had any bearing on their relationships. Even when they weren't well, the sickly flamingos continued to socialize, which likely means that time with other flamingos is important. Flamingos may even depend on a best friend or friends when times get tough.

This information deepens our understanding of flamingo relationships and how we can help facilitate them, explain the study's authors.

"These results are helpful for those working with captive flamingos to consider the number of birds housed so that an array of opportunities for choice of associate and/or breeding partner are available in zoo-housed flocks."

It also reminds us that the animals we share this planet with often have complex, interesting lives of their own, and they deserve the space and protection they need to keep living them.