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Mean Girls IRL: Scientists Discover Flamingos Have Cliques

Flamingos might all the look the same to us, but apparently the birds differ widely in personality—and have very strong preferences as to who they’ll hang out with. According to new research published in early March, flamingos form lasting friendships with both same-sex bird friends and romantic partners. And they’re very picky. In fact, scientists say, their social circles strongly resemble human cliques. (Anyone else flashing back to Mean Girls?)

Curious about the playground-like dynamics he saw flamingos exhibiting in captivity, researchers Paul Rose and Fionnuala McCully set out to study the birds up close. They spent the next four months researching Chilean and Caribbean flamingos’ friendships at a zoo in Gloucestershire, England.

By studying each bird’s unique leg-ring code, McCully was able to document the social interactions between individual flamingos. Using that information and observations about their day-to-day behaviors, she created special “personality profiles” for each bird. She then used special mathematical techniques to quantify the strengths of relationships between the birds and how they changed over time. This helped her to determine whether or not the flamingos’ personalities influenced the way they make friendships. 

Drama around the watering hole. Image by Karolina Bobek/Unsplash

The old adage proved true: birds of a feather did, in this case, flock together. The flamingos tended to vibe with birds who shared similar personality traits. In the sample population of Caribbean flamingos, for example, the outgoing and aggressive birds were the life of the party. They had more friends and spent more time socializing than the lone wallowers of the group. These social-butterfly flamingos tended to stick together. The more introverted birds had their own group.

This newfound understanding of flamingo friendships is interesting for a number of reasons. For one, it puts a mirror up to our own habits and shows us that we’re not so different from animals, after all. The research may also be able to direct future bird conservation practices. If zoos and sanctuaries provide plenty of space and time for birds to make and maintain friendships, that means each flamingo may have a better chance at a thriving social life—and therefore better mental and physical health. 

The next time you spot a group of flamingos, remember that these beautiful birds have complex social lives just like us. Except, unlike Regina George and the Plastics, they have to wear pink every single day—not just on Wednesdays.

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