Flamingos (Aves, Phoenicopteridae) represent an ancient lineage of long-legged, microphagous, colonial wading birds. Although often perceived as tropical, flamingo distribution is more closely tied to the great deserts of the world, and to hypersaline sites, than it is to equatorial regions. Many aspects of flamingo behavior and ecology can be studied in captivity. Experimental studies involving captive birds, when combined with observational studies of free-ranging birds, offer researchers opportunities to address questions that are unanswerable with field work alone. Zoo populations of flamingos are prime candidates for such studies.
Here, we use samples of our own work to illustrate the synergistic effects of combining zoo and field research. Our first example describes how studies of salt tolerance in captive birds are playing a key role in assessing the impact of salt as an ecological determinant of flamingo distribution. Our second example describes how aggression and dominance interactions affect the feeding behavior of flamingos. We assess the implications of this research in terms of both avicultural practices and the fundamental ecology of the birds. We believe that similar collaborations involving other zoo animals would yield comparatively productive results.