Tickled Pink
by John Aikin
Executive Director, Palo Alto Junior Museum & Zoo
Flamingos at the new Junior Museum & Zoo
Flamingos at the new Palo Alto Junior Museum & Zoo
I recall the first time that I hand-fed a flamingo because it was an extraordinary experience. As I stepped into the flamingo enclosure at the San Diego Zoo, I was struck by how impressively tall the birds were as they stood right next to me - my heart fluttered. I was handed a clear plastic cup of water with a half dozen pellets floating inside, which I recognized as the birds’ lunch - flamingos in zoos are fed a pelleted diet designed just for them. As I held out the cup, a bird named Marge approached, looked me straight in the eye, craned its neck and then inserted its bill into the cup. 
The cup began to shake and I could hear and feel a piston-like pumping of water sloshing about. I remember learning that flamingos use their tongue to pump water through their bill to filter food from the water, just like a whale. In that moment, connecting what I had learned with the actual experience of feeling the pumping was incredible.
This experience caused me to see and understand these birds differently. These odd birds, with impossibly long bones in their legs, their long curved necks and upside-down-shaped bills, their anatomy and its role in nature somehow added to the intrigue of these mystical animals. This colorful creature was shaped over time, and had honed a powerful technique to extract small crustaceans and algae from shallow brackish and saltwater by pumping water through its bill. My firsthand experience and emotional reaction with the flamingos were a powerful and memorable experience, which we could replicate and share with the JMZ community.
With this in mind, during the design of the zoo we planned an area adjacent to the flamingo’s new home where we could bring groups of people, a few at a time. Smaller groups of people are easier to monitor and manage, and so easier to keep everyone calm and focused - all important things when working with animals. This area, called Wildlife Circle, is where most of the animal feedings will occur once we reopen.
We also designed the pool to be a place where the birds would want to be. One of the challenges of caring for flamingos is that they can injure their feet from standing on the concrete floor of a pool, so we designed our ponds and our stream to have a floor of pebbles, which provides the birds a soft substrate that is good for their feet. They also like to forage for algae and will move the gravel around with both their feet and their bills. 

Once everything was ready, we found six American flamingos in Brownsville, Texas. We chose that type because they are the largest and calmest of their kind and they also have the brightest colors; nearly all of their feathers are infused with the most amazing shades of apricot, pink and red. However, it’s not as easy as you may think to get these birds to Palo Alto. Flamingos do best by walking on their own, or even hand carried short distances. Their crates are too tall to fit onto an airline carrier, so the best option here is to drive. After 23 hours on the road in the back of a horse trailer, and quarantining for 30 days, we are thrilled to have our flamingos acclimated to their new home at the JMZ!
Friends of the Palo Alto Junior Museum & Zoo