by Roman Alraun and Nigel Hewston
First Published in The Avicultural Magazine Vol. 103 No. 4
Copyright © 1995 Avicultural Society, Published with Permission


The BreedingLesser Flamingo Phoeniconaias minor is the smallest of the six kinds of flamingo. It is the most numerous in the wild, probably outnumbering the populations of all the other five forms added together. It is fairly widely kept in captivity but seems more reluctant to breed than the larger flamingos for reasons which are not entirely clear, but may be linked to Lesser Flamingos being less hardy, or to their much larger colonies in the wild. This article describes the successful nesting of Lesser Flamingos in a private collection in Germany in 1992, which is believed to be the first breeding of this species in Europe, and summarises more recent successes in other German collections. The species is believed to have bred at least occasionally at zoos in the USA and several times eggs have been laid at the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, Slimbridge, UK.

The colony

Four juvenile Lesser Flamingos were obtained in April 1986. By 1992 there were 33 birds (18.15) in the group. Also in the enclosure were 2.3 Chilean Flamingos Phoenicopterus chilensis a variety of ducks and some Red-breasted Geese Branta ruficollis. The ducks and geese initially caused no problems for the flamingos, except for Canvasback DuckCanvasbacks Aythya valisineria damaging nests by digging at the base, but the geese eventually proved to be aggressive so the flamingos now share the enclosure only with small ducks. Most of the flamingos are full-winged, which seems to make mating easier for the males. A pinioned male Chilean Flamingo obtained late in 1992 to make the flock up to 3.3 has failed to mate successfully, while a full-winged male has fertilised two females. A pinioned female Lesser Flamingo however, which came from Tanzania in 1960, laid in 1995 and is still in excellent condition.


The birds are kept in an enclosure of approximately 800sq m (approx. 8,600 sq ft), with a pond measuring about 20sq m (just under 2l5sq ft) and 50cm (approx. 1 ft. 10 in.) deep which is allowed to overflow to cover another l0sq m (approx. l08sq ft) in the breeding season. Part of the pen is planted with conifers. The birds stay in this enclosure all year round and have a lined house which is 80% transparent and which they use readily.

Food includes Mazuri Waterfowl Maintenance, Waterfowl Breeder and Flamingo (E), Kasper Faunafood Seaduck Diet and Floating Duck Diet, also shrimps and sometimes algae meal. Finely grated carrot is occasionally added to the food. In the early years the Lesser Flamingos were given calf milk which they took readily, but after two years they stopped taking it so now the food is mixed with water. All the food is soaked overnight in two buckets which are half-filled with food then filled to the top with water and fed at 4:00pm the next day. The morning feed is one bucket of dry food scattered on the water.


In mid-May 1991 it was noticed that one of the female flamingos was dirty on the back. A few days later, while turning the earth on the nest site, a pair was seen mating only 3m (about 10ft) away. Following this other copulations were observed by various pairs.

On 30th May at 9:10pm the first egg was seen on a nest mound. The female was one of the first four birds and therefore just over five years old. The egg weighed 106g and measured 86 x 55mm. The egg was incubated by both parents alternately. On 3rd June a second female laid, this egg measured 86 x 54mm and weighed 110g. This female was paired to another female and did not seem interested in the males. Neither egg was fertile.

Cold, wet weather around 10th June caused interruption and eventual abandonment of incubation. Other females which were heavy did not lay, and no longer looked heavy. Copulations ceased after 15th June. Early on the 26th, with the temperature at 26°C (68°F) and humidity at 90%, a group of males was again nest building. Males were seen mating with each other and single-sex male and female pairs were seen associating. No female pairs were seen mating, though they were tightly bonded. One female was seen attempting to mount another but no mating took place. Apparently homosexual males have been seen to chase and mount lesbian females.

In 1992 copulations were observed from the beginning of May. Around the 17th there was complete calm, with no mating or nest building. It was very hot, over 32°C (89.6°F). The birds seemed uneasy. At the end of the week the nest area, which had been dry, was flooded and nest building began again immediately. The following week mating also recommenced and the birds became more active.

On 30th May an egg was laid by the female which had laid on the same date the previous year. This egg died at about ten days. A new pair laid on 6th June and on the 7th the female which was paired to the one which laid on 3rd June 1991 also laid. The other female from this pair did not lay. This egg was found off the nest the next morning and was replaced. A single Chilean female tried to incubate it but it was knocked off again and she broke it trying to retrieve it. This was a pity as the Lesser had mated often with a male and it would have been interesting to see whether the two females would have reared a chick. On 8th June this female was again mated but did not re-lay, though re-laying has been recorded in flamingos when an egg is lost. After 20th June all went quiet until 5th July when pairing recommenced, and one male was again chasing the female which laid on 7th June.

On 6th August one female was found dead on the water. She weighed 1,965g and was found on post mortem examination to have a fully developed egg yolk inside and a large active follicle on the ovary. Death was caused by a heart attack, probably stress-induced.

The egg laid on 6th June was on a nest under a tall cypress and close to a fence. It pipped on 2nd July; the chick could be heard and its beak was visible. It hatched the next day. It was possible to photograph the whole process as it was very hot and the female stood on the nest and watched as the chick hatched. After 24 hours the chick tried to stand. It ate the remaining pieces of eggshell and was fed by the parents. On the 4th both parents oiled themselves extensively; the preen glands were clearly visible. They oiled themselves thoroughly in order to transfer oil to the chick.

On 7th July at four days old the chick was jumping around on the nest mound like a goat kid. It left the nest several times for short periods, but went back to the nest straight away. The next day the chick could stand on one leg to preen. It fell over when flapping its wings as if trying to fly, but righted itself immediately. It made longer excursions from the nest and was accompanied by both parents. It was also followed and pushed around by single females, including the Chilean. The whole flock gathered behind the chick. The parents carefully guided the chick back to the nest. Because of the attacks by the other birds the chick had to go through water and mud to get back to the nest, and was shivering, so was brooded by its father on the nest. It was often brooded during the day by both parents but predominantly by the male, with the mother on the nest at night.

Later this day the pair with the chick were separated from the other birds as they all wanted to take over the chick, despite having pecked at it earlier. A pair of Chileans had attacked the parents on the nest and they had not been able to defend themselves. The chick sought out a new nest mound to roost on and was brooded by its mother

On 10th July, at eight days old, the chick was seen to bathe for the first time, albeit in a small puddle. It shook and preened itself just like the adults. The chick took the lead in again finding a new mound to roost on, and was brooded by the male during the day and the female at night.

The chick took food (Waterfowl Maintenance) from the water for the first time at ten days old. At around 9:30pm it had already been sitting on the new mound for some time and was ready to roost. It called to its mother but she stood 2m (6ft 7in) away and slept with her head under her wing. The male stood over the chick, which called and called but with no response from the female. It moved to another mound closer to her but she still seemed unconcerned, though the male was agitated. After 11:00pm it was too dark to see any more. At 4:00am the next morning the chick was asleep on the same mound without its mother. At 7:00am the parents fed it and it also took some food from the water. At 8:00pm it was back on the new mound and after a lot of 'cheeping' its mother came over and sat down, brooding the chick under one wing.

The next evening the chick sat on the nest at 8:45pm and waited for its mother, who brooded it as on the previous night. At 15 days old it stood on one leg on the nest to sleep. It had not been brooded by its mother for two days.

On 21st July, at 19 days old, the chick was ringed with a 19mm ring. This was removed later as it was obviously too big. A 14mm ring is a better size for this species, and 16mm for Chileans. The chick and its parents were let out of their temporary enclosure as all the other birds seemed used to the chick by now. It was fed in the evening by its mother and then fed with its father at the bowl. It was much more often with its father than with its mother, and the male still protected it if it was harassed by other birds. In the evening the pair and chick were put back into the small enclosure to ensure that nothing happened to the chick overnight. From 24th July it was left with the flock at night.

At 23 days old the bill was starting to grow curved and was turning pale mauve. At 32 days the chick was about 50cm (19¾in) tall, and had therefore grown at an average of over 15mm per day. This very rapid growth may be to enable chicks to walk long distances at an early age. At Etosha Pan in Namibia chicks have been recorded walking 80km (approx. 50mi) to water as the pan dries out.

On 13th August the young flamingo, which had been named 'Philip', was seen to bathe energetically for the first time, demonstrating his now powerful and well-grown wings. The quills of the flight feathers were visible. On the 14th he was six weeks old and his back reached his mother's breastbone. He had to bend his neck to be fed, otherwise she could no longer feed him easily. The down on his crown had been replaced by grey feathers. On 18th August 'Philip' was feeding on flamingo food from the bowl with his father, who watched over him, keeping at a distance three other flamingos which were trying to feed.

In 1993 and 1994 the Lesser Flamingos failed to lay. In 1995 three eggs were laid, but only one was fertile. The parents did not incubate it, so the egg was hatched, and the chick reared, by another pair. Both the young birds are males. The legs change from grey to red at three years old. Factors involved in stimulating breeding appear to include freedom from disturbance, warmth, sunlight and damp, marshy ground. At temperatures above 20°C (68° F) the birds start to build on prepared nest sites whenever the ground is made moist by rain, overflow from the pond, or soaking with a hosepipe. Most of the birds build nests, including some single males and single-sex pairs of both sexes. However, they dislike rainy weather, and if it rains for more than two days at a time, pairing, mating and nest building stop completely. In 1996 and again this year the Lesser Flamingos failed to lay.

Chilean Flamingos laid infertile eggs in 1994, and in 1995 two fertile eggs were laid by females paired to different males but both fertilised by the same (full-winged) male. These both hatched but the chicks died at 11 and 31 days. In 1996 three pairs produced six eggs, and three young (2.1) were reared, all three from one male and two females. This year four eggs had been laid by the end of July, two were infertile, in one the embryo died, and another from the same pair was also fertile. Eggs are collected and put into an incubator until just before hatching, when they are put back into nests for hatching and rearing.

In 1993 Lesser Flamingos also bred at the Friedrichsfeld Zoo in Berlin. A flock of 23 birds produced 16 eggs, from which two chicks were reared. A private breeder in Schleswig-Holstein, who keeps large groups of four kinds of flamingos, has had remarkable success breeding Lesser Flamingos. His group of c.50 birds live in a house c.200 sq m (approx. 2,150sq ft) made from double-glazed panels with a sliding roof which can be opened. In 1992 one infertile egg was laid, in 1993 a large number of eggs resulted in eight young, there were no eggs in 1994, four young in 1995, one in 1996, and this year 13 young from 14 or 15 eggs. The level of success achieved in this sheltered situation seems to confirm that weather is an important factor in breeding Lesser Flamingos in northern Europe.

Roman Alraun breeds waterfowl and flamingos at Neustadt, Germany. His notes were translated and adapted for publication by Nigel Hewston, who was formerly flamingo coordinator for the Federation of Zoological Gardens of Great Britain and Ireland.