Birds of the same feather group together but, within their flocks, flamingos form smaller cliques of like-minded individuals, according to a new study.
While previous research has shown that flamingos form friendship groups, the results of this latest study, published Wednesday in the journal Scientific Reports, indicated that these friendships are partly determined by the intrinsic traits of individuals.
Researchers from the University of Exeter and the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) studied a herd of 147 Caribbean flamingos and a separate flock of 115 Chilean flamingos at WWT Slimbridge Wetland Center in Gloucestershire between March and July 2014.
Both groups were found to have individuals with different behavioral traits, and they seemed to use these traits to choose which flamingos they would most associate with.
“For example, more daring birds had stronger and more consistent bonds with other daring birds, while submissive birds tended to spend their time with other submissive flamingos,” said the co-author of the study and animal behavior specialist, Dr Paul Rose, associate researcher at WWT and lecturer at the University of Exeter.
In the Caribbean herd, personality was found to have an effect on social roles, with flamingos displaying higher levels of aggressive, exploratory, and submissive behavior having more friends in their clique and forming stronger bonds with those friends.
These flamingos also got into more fights and were more willing to provide reinforcement when friends of their clique were threatened, the researchers observed.
This may be because extroverted and aggressive tendencies make birds more likely to engage in a wider range of activities, such as exploration and combat, which would associate them with more individuals, the researchers said.
They added that while aggressive birds engage in confrontations more frequently than others, stronger network bonds could help them gain social support from loved ones.
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“This study is important because it shows that, for flamingos in particular, their social life is complex and the relationships they form within are clearly important for bird welfare and flock cohesion,” said Dr Rose told Sky News.
“For captive animals more generally, this study shows the importance of looking more deeply into the social lives of many other species of animals. Not just commonly studied species such as great apes and monkeys, but all the social animals of the zoo.
“Clearly, the individual choices that animals make within a social group are important to them.”
Since the researchers found that the relationship between the flamingos was long-lasting, with birds of the same origin – whether captive-bred or wild-caught – associating more closely, they recommended that managers keep intact the relationships established during the translocation of the birds.
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Unlike the Caribbean flock, personality does not appear to influence social status and conflicting interactions among members of the Chilean flock, and Chilean flamingos did not use age as a factor when selecting their friends – like this was done in the Caribbean group. .
The study could not say why this was the case, but noted that the Chilean group was much smaller than the Caribbean herd, and their breeding season was later in the summer, so that these factors could have had an impact on the structure and behavior of the group, making it more difficult to directly compare the two herds.
The researchers recommended that the study be replicated with other groups to see if their findings could apply to flamingos in general, and not just the two flocks studied.
“It would be great to see this work done in flocks of wild birds, but unfortunately flamingos are difficult to study in the wild as they occur in such large flocks and can be unpredictable in their movements. Therefore, tracking individual birds over time to see who they are with is very difficult,” Dr Rose added.
“Seeing others repeat this study with their own flocks of flamingos and compare the findings of expressing personalities would also be very interesting and show whether or not all flamingos behave in the same way as our birds.”