Bright pink, knobby-kneed flamingos get together in incredible numbers, like the amassing of around two million of the vibrant birds on Tanzania’s Lake Natron each year. It might be easy to get lost in such a vast crowd, and in a group that big, one bird can’t be friends with everybody.
New research on captive flocks of at most 147 birds found that flamingos tend to have a small, core group of pals, usually from two to four birds strong. The groups were a mix of males and females and weren’t limited to mated pairs. No matter a flamingo’s health, it stuck with its clique, and some groups in the smaller flocks avoided each other throughout the five-year study.
“It seems that—like humans—flamingos form social bonds for a variety of reasons,” flamingo expert Paul Rose of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) in the United Kingdom, who co-authored the research paper, says in a statement. “And the fact they’re so long-lasting suggests they are important for survival in the wild.”
Of the six species of flamingo in the wild, four were the focus of the new study, published in the journal Behavioural Processes. Working at the WWT reserve in Slimbridge, England, Rose analyzed flocks of over 100 each Caribbean and Chilean flamingos and 45 lesser flamingos. The flock of Andean flamingos, the rarest and tallest species of flamingo, came to a total of 23 birds including one James’ flamingo because the two species cohabitate in the wild.
While some flamingos spent a lot of time with their mates, flamingo bros and gal pals were also common, leading Rose to conclude that the social bonds form for many reasons. The researchers found no loners, but some birds bounced between cliques. These were the “social butterflies,” Rose tells the Guardian’s Steven Morris.
In the wild, the smaller, reliable groups within the larger flock might help a flamingo find food, watch for danger or notice when the flock is moving somewhere else, Rose tells the Guardian. But for now, the research has direct implications for zoo management—not only should core groups of flamingos not be separated, but flocks should also be as big as reasonably possible, according to the research.
“Our results indicate that flamingo societies are complex. They are formed of long-standing friendships rather than loose, random connections,” Rose says in the statement. “Flamingos have long lives – some of the birds in this study have been at Slimbridge since the 1960s – and our study shows their friendships are stable over a period of years.”
Rose’s new research adds to a body of work that showed flamingo personalities, which come through when it’s time to eat. Some birds are pushy when going after grub, while others lurk around the sidelines. And the paper puts flamingos among other animals that choose companions.
Dolphins, for example, form small, consistent groups and pairs of males will go on tour serenading females. Cows have best friends and get stressed without their buddy—the duos are usually characterized by one that licks, and one that is licked, per the Atlantic’s Rebecca Giggs. And elephants take time to comfort their stressed-out companions.