Flock this way: flamingos arrive at Oregon Zoo

Pink birds will meet the public March 23 in remodeled Africa Rainforest aviary

The newest residents of the Oregon Zoo are pretty in pink. This month, 21 lesser flamingos arrived from the San Antonio Zoo. After about a month of acclimation and observation to ensure the birds' health, the flamingos will wade into their home in the newly remodeled Africa Rainforest aviary.

The pink birds will meet the public March 23 at the reopening of the Africa Rainforest aviary, which has been closed for remodeling since November. The flamingos' new home boasts a pool especially designed for them, a new nesting area, and separate holding areas for the flamingos and for the ducks, pochards and ibises that share the aviary.

Northwesterners may not be used to seeing pink flamingos — except for the lawn variety. The birds have not been part of the Washington Park landscape since the early 1950s, when three flamingos were given to the zoo by the Meier & Frank Co.

It's fitting that this flock will make its Oregon Zoo debut just in time for spring break, since flamingos often put people in mind of Miami and other getaway destinations. But animal curator Michael Illig hopes the aviary's flamboyant newcomers help visitors think of the lake regions of eastern Africa, where most of the world's lesser flamingos are born.

"The flamingo is such a gorgeous, social bird," Illig said. "When people make a connection with the flamingo, they become curious about where the birds come from and the challenges they face in the wild."

The smallest species of flamingo, the lesser flamingo (Phoenicopterus minor) stands nearly 3 feet tall and weighs 3 to 6 pounds, with a wingspan up to 41 inches. The Oregon Zoo's lesser flamingos come to Portland from the San Antonio Zoo, which is phasing out its flock. All of the flamingos are males, but Illig says the zoo plans to add females and begin a reproductive program in the future. The zoo's flamingo population will be managed under a cooperative program of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, of which the Oregon Zoo is an accredited member.

With a global population of more than 2 million, the lesser flamingo is not considered an endangered species. There is cause for concern, though: Some of the birds' main breeding sites are facing risks due to industrial pollution and human encroachment.

The primary habitats of the lesser flamingo are shallow, brackish lakes in the Rift Valley of eastern Africa, where three-quarters of the population is born. A smaller population lives in India. The birds have specialized salt glands that allow them to excrete excess salt they ingest, letting them take advantage of habitats other animals cannot.

Lesser flamingos feed on spirulina, a blue-green bacteria, which thrives in alkaline lakes and contains the photosynthetic pigments that give the birds their pink color. At the Oregon Zoo, the flamingos will eat a specialized diet that contains the algae they need. They'll scoop food out of the lagoon in much the same way they do in the wild, dipping their beaks upside-down into the water and sweeping them back and forth to filter food.

The Africa Rainforest lagoon renovation is part of a larger, donor-funded aviary upgrade project. Cascade Marsh, in the Great Northwest habitat area, is also reopening after renovation that included new netting, a new vestibule and pole caps to preserve the aviary structure.

The aviary upgrades are part of an effort to improve habitats, enhance animal welfare and make the grounds more sustainable, but these renovations were not funded by the zoo bond measure passed by voters in 2008. The aviary improvements were funded entirely by donor contributions through the Oregon Zoo Foundation.