By Ellen Lambeth; photos by Claudio Contreras Koob
Flamingos come here to raise their chicks. And kids come to help scientists check out the chicks. You can check it all out, too!
With their pink feathers aglow in the tropical sunlight, the long-necked, long-legged birds below rest on their nests. The birds are American flamingos, and they’re gathered at the edge of this salty lagoon to start new families. The lagoon is in a protected area called Ría Lagartos, located at the top of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula (see map).
This is one of the most important places where American flamingos gather to breed. But people had been disturbing them there, gathering their eggs, and causing changes to their environment. So scientists and conservation groups began working hard to help protect the birds and their home. One of these groups is called Niños y Crías (NEENyohs EE CREE-uhs). That loosely translates to “Kids and Chicks” or “Kids and Critters” in Spanish, the language of Mexico.
ROUND ’EM UP!
To protect the flamingos of Ría Lagartos from pollution and other problems, scientists first need to learn as much as they can about the birds. And they want the support of the local people. After all, the more people know about these beautiful birds, the more they’ll want to protect them. And who are the biggest supporters of all? Kids!
That’s why Niños y Crías helps local schools teach their students all about the flamingos and their problems. The group also invites kids to help scientists round up each year’s batch of new chicks.
Here’s what happens during the round-up: Scientists, children, park rangers, and adult volunteers arrive before dawn and look for the chicks in their “nursery” group. The people then herd the chicks into a temporary pen to keep them together.
As the sun rises, the chicks are removed from the pen, one by one. While the kids look on, the scientists quickly, but carefully, check each chick. They weigh it, measure its wings, and put a band on each of the chick’s legs.
The bands will help the scientists keep track of each bird as it grows up and moves from place to place. If one of these birds is found somewhere later, the small metal band will tell the finder where to send info about it. The big, colorful plastic band can be easily seen from afar—especially with spotting scopes. The letters ID the bird and tell when and where it was banded.
MOVE ’EM OUT!
After each chick is banded and checked over, a kid helps to release it. The children learn how to hold the young birds just so and to be very gentle when handling them. Setting a banded chick free brings a big smile to each child’s face—as well as a feeling of pride.
In just a couple of hours, the day’s work is done, and the birds return to their normal business. Soon, the whole colony will leave the lagoon. If scientists or volunteer observers spot any of them later, they mark down when and where, adding more information about the birds’ lives. They can discover, for example, where the birds go in search of a new food supply.
But work isn’t done for Niños y Crías after banding day. They’ll keep helping flamingos throughout the year. The group will teach the local communities such things as keeping pets away from the nesting birds and keeping the lagoon pollution-free. They’ll even help hold a beach cleanup. And before you know it, they’ll be planning for the next Festival del Flamenco, or Flamingo Festival.
The festival gets everyone excited about celebrating the big pink birds. There will be a parade, games and contests for the children, and presentations for families. After all that, it’ll be time to band a whole new batch of chicks!
"Flamingo Roundup" originally appeared in the February 2016 issue of Ranger Rick magazine. Click here for a better view of the photos.