Many think flamingos only appear in bright pink hues and originate in the Caribbean, like the ones living at Nashville Zoo, but there are actually a variety of flamingo species that live around the world.
In South America, three flamingo species — the Andean flamingo, St. James flamingo and Chilean flamingo — are all facing extinction due to habitat loss, climate change and human intrusion.
During a recent trip to Laguna Colorada National Wildlife Sanctuary, Lead Avian Keeper Kristi Watkins assisted a team from Centro de Estudios en Biología Teórica y Aplicada (BIOTA) who are researching these three species of flamingos in hopes of better understanding ways to protect them.
“There’s only three areas in South America where these birds breed, so it’s a really important to maintain this environment,” Watkins said.
Watkins helped band flamingos, which will benefit future teams in identifying individual flamingos, weighed newly-hatched flamingo chicks and assessed the overall health of the populations.
Upon arriving at the nesting areas, which are located in a mostly dry, barren landscape near the Andes Mountains, the team discovered a recent period of heavy rainfall had decimated the entire local Andean flamingo egg population. Approximately 8,000 Andean flamingo eggs were lost because of the high water levels, which could be due in part to climate change.
“It’s almost a desert out there, so the fact that it was flooded and all the eggs were destroyed was tragic,” Watkins said.
Although the Andean flamingos didn’t fare well this season, the population of St. James flamingos survived through their nesting season and have been steadily increasing their numbers. The Chilean flamingos hadn’t gone through their nesting period at that point in time, so the eggs weren’t affected by the flooding, but their numbers have been declining.
The research team included staff members from Nashville Zoo, Fort Worth Zoo and La Paz Zoo, along with National Park Rangers and the BIOTA leaders. Additionally, the group has been working with high school students from the surrounding region of Potosi to get them involved in researching these birds.
“Flamingos have long been interwoven into the local culture of this region’s indigenous people,” Watkins said. “Collecting flamingo eggs for consumption and trade has been a longstanding tradition. However, harvesting flamingo eggs can have a devastating impact on an already declining population.”
Once nests are disturbed, flamingo flocks abandon the nesting sight, never to return to the remaining eggs. Since a pair of flamingos typically lay just one egg per year, a disruption in the nesting period can result in a complete loss of flamingo chicks for that entire year.
Having the local students involved in the yearly project seems to have a positive impact on the flamingo populations. No egg collecting has been reported over the last two years.
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Another threat to these flamingos is lithium mining. Although mining has become a necessary facet of the Bolivian economy, it is destroying the habitat of these flamingos, as well as polluting the water system. Make sure to recycle and dispose of your lithium batteries properly and resist buying a new cellphone every couple of years to decrease the demand for this natural resource.
Here’s Where to Recycle Your Batteries.