The great flamingo round-up

05/06/04

Scientists corral, band and release over 300 threatened flamingoes for research

NEWS RELEASE NEW YORK (MAY 6, 2004) -- With South America's Mars-like Altiplano region serving as a surreal back-drop, a group of scientists from the Bronx Zoo-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) recently braved frigid temperatures, high winds, and altitudes of over 11,000 feet to fit bands on 300 threatened James' flamingoes chicks. Working in Eduardo Avaroa Faunal Reserve in southern Bolivia, the banding effort is part of a multi-nation study on flamingo movements and population dynamics.

Collecting hundreds of birds at a time proved challenging for the scientists. They built a large funnel and a "flamingo corral" with wooden stakes and plastic sheeting, then rounded up a large group of chicks, which gather in flocks of several hundred birds called creches.

"Two groups set out, one on each side of the group of chicks, fanned out, then herded them into the funnel," said Dr. Felicity Arengo, WCS assistant director of Latin America Programs. "There was some chaos and running around while we were herding the birds, but once they were in the pen they calmed down."

After the chicks were rounded up, each was weighed, measured, and fitted with a plastic numbered tag that will allow scientists to identify individuals, before being released. Blood samples were taken from 70 of the largest chicks to record baseline data on their health.

For the past three years, WCS has participated in the banding project, fitting over 500 flamingoes with bands. Both James' and Andean flamingoes are considered vulnerable with total populations estimated at 64,000 and 34,000 respectively. Since 1997, WCS has worked with local partners in flamingo research and conservation, because habitat is becoming more and more impacted by mining and other human activities.

The windswept Altiplano region that spans Bolivia, Peru, Chile and Argentina is recognized as one of the world's most inhospitable regions, with extreme dry weather, blistering sunshine and caustic salt lakes dotting the landscape. For flamingoes however, the lakes are rich in microscopic food, while the surrounding wetlands make a perfect breeding ground.

"Most people think of flamingoes as delicate birds that live on tropical beaches and palm trees," said Arengo. "In reality these are extremely tough animals adapted to some of the most rugged conditions on earth."

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