Plan keeps baby flamingos safe

One-month-old Boomer wanders in the flamingo habitat at Riverbanks Zoo. For the first time, the baby flamingos are being kept indoors at night to protect them against predators. The flamingos spend their days in the habitat with their parents and the rest

COLUMBIA -- Riverbanks Zoo is trying something different to deal with two potential flamingo concerns.

Critters that live on the zoo grounds but aren't official zoo animals -- raccoons, snakes and foxes -- have killed some flamingo chicks in their outdoor exhibit through the years.

To protect the chicks, zookeepers have hand-raised chicks in recent years. But flamingos are more social if they are raised by their parents. So this year, Riverbanks is splitting the difference.

Two chicks born in recent months are being taken into the Bird Conservation Center each night -- when predators are most likely to strike -- and then brought out to spend the day on exhibit with their parents. It seems to be working. The parents are parenting, and the chicks are thriving.

"The process of fostering chicks and then returning them to their parents mimics the behavior of wild flamingos but has never been done in a zoo before," said Martin Vince, curator of birds at Riverbanks. "In the wild, flamingo chicks will stay together as a group while their parents wander. When the parents return, they rely on the distinctive vocalizations of their offspring to reconnect and resume caring for their young."

Starbuck, born June 28, and Boomer, born July 9, (named after characters from the sci-fi series "Battlestar Galactica") are reconnecting with the parents each day. They're easy to spot in the exhibit. Not only are they smaller than the other flamingos, but they don't have the classic pink coloring yet. They should blend in with the others in about a year -- growing and turning pink because of their specialized diet.

In the wild, they eat crustaceans and mollusks. At Riverbanks, they get special pellets that contain similar nutrients.