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Flamingos form long-term friendships and "cliques"

These pink feathered folk form complex social networks and are choosy about who they spend their time with, according to a new study.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock
  • A five-year study conducted by researchers at the University of Exeter shows that flamingos are choosy about who they spend their time with.
  • Flamingo friendships are made and maintained long-term due to preference rather than loose, randomly made connections.
  • In 2009, Madison, Wisconsin, named the plastic pink flamingo the city's official bird.

    New research showing that flamingos form complex social networks and long-lasting friendships could help inform flock conservation efforts.

    Flamingos are known to be extremely gregarious animals, with individual birds rolling deep in flocks as large as more than 2 million birds. But a five-year study conducted by researchers at the University of Exeter shows that flamingos are choosy about who they spend their time with, consistently hanging out with specific close friends and snubbing other birds.

    Research findings

    Photo Credit: Shutterstock

    The study, published in Behavioural Processes, examined four captive flamingo species held at WWT Slimbridge Wetland Centre in the U.K. from 2013 to 2016 and compared the findings to data collected on the flamingos in 2012. Researchers examined flocks of Caribbean, Chilean, Andean, and Lesser flamingos. Behavioral data was collected by photographic records of the birds, which were taken four times per day in the spring and summer and three times per day in the fall and winter.

    The researchers found that in every flock, the birds had formed social bonds including mating pairs, same-sex pals and groups of three to four close friends. The preferred acquaintances that were noted in 2012 were still present in 2016.

    "We compared birds that were consistently seen together, in close proximity, over time," said Paul Rose, Ph.D., an author of the study, in an email to Big Think. "We repeated our measurements to make sure what we were seeing was not by chance and to be able to build up a picture of who would be most often seen near or with another bird."

    According to the research team, the results indicate that flamingo societies are complex, with flamingo friendships made and maintained long-term due to preference rather than loose, randomly made connections.

    "There have been several pieces of published research that show non-human animals form social bonds that are important to their health and well-being and to the social [organization] of their group (i.e. keeping it together)," explained Rose. "What we think is interesting about the flamingo work is that this is a gregarious bird that gathers in very large flocks, yet within these large flocks there is an element of social choice. So the flamingos must be aware of who is around them to choose who they want to be associating with."

    All of the flamingos in the study were more frequently seen socializing rather than being solitary, though some were especially social, fluttering between groups. The observed flocks varied in size from just over 20 to more than 140, and the findings suggest that the flamingos in the largest flocks displayed the highest occurrence of social interactions

    Additionally, the researchers wanted to see what impact foot health had on individual differences in flamingo social behavior. (Captive flamingos are prone to suffer from changes to the plantar surface of the foot.) The foot health scores, as it turned out, did not matter when it came to predicting the friendships in the three of the four studied flamingo flocks. Though, researchers found that the number of connections made between flamingos was significantly influenced by the season.

    Improving conservation efforts

    It's typical for some animals to invest in social relationships that convey fitness benefits, and those bonds can be long lasting. These new understandings of how the formation of a long-term social bond can be important for a flamingo's quality of life may be utilized to advise animal management and conservation efforts going forward.

    "These results are helpful for those working with captive flamingos to consider the number of birds housed so that an array of opportunities for choice of associate and/or breeding partner are available in zoo-housed flocks," the authors write. "Understanding the persistence and strength of social bonds could help inform conservation actions for wild flocks by maintaining suitable habitats for birds to return to year-on-year."

    For example, you wouldn't want to split up life-long pals when moving a flock to a new location. In the future, the researchers think that the impact of flock size and environment on flamingo social networks should be further investigated.

    More about flamingos

    Photo Credit: Santiago Lacarta / Unsplash

    Here are five more fascinating facts about these gregarious feathered folk.

    1. Male and female flamingo mating pairs build nests together, and both take turns sitting on the egg while it incubates for about a month.
    2. A flock of flamingos is called a stand or a flamboyance.
    3. The salmon pink color the flamingo sports comes from beta-carotene in the crustaceans and plankton that they eat. The pinker the flamingo, the better fed he or she is.
    4. Flamingo chicks are born as a white-grey ball of fuzz. It takes two to three years for them to turn pink. They are also born with straight beaks, which begin to curve once they mature.
    5. In 2009, Madison, Wisconsin, named the plastic pink flamingo—a reviled kitschy cultural icon introduced in the 50sthe city's official bird.

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    Two-thirds of parents say technology makes parenting harder

    Parental anxieties stem from the complex relationship between technology, child development, and the internet's trove of unseemly content.

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    • Today's parents believe parenting is harder now than 20 years ago.
    • A Pew Research Center survey found this belief stems from the new challenges and worries brought by technology.
    • With some schools going remote next year, many parents will need to adjust expectations and re-learn that measured screen usage won't harm their children.

    Parents and guardians have always endured a tough road. They are the providers of an entire human being's subsistence. They keep that person feed, clothed, and bathe; They help them learn and invest in their enrichment and experiences; They also help them navigate social life in their early years, and they do all this with limited time and resources, while simultaneously balancing their own lives and careers.

    Add to that a barrage of advice and reminders that they can always spend more money, dedicate more time, or flat-out do better, and it's no wonder that psychologists worry about parental burnout.

    But is parenting harder today than it was, say, 20 years ago? The Pew Research Center asked more than 3,600 parents this question, and a majority (66 percent) believe the answer is yes. While some classic complaints made the list—a lack of discipline, a disrespectful generation, and the changing moral landscape—the most common reason cited was the impact of digital technology and social media.

    A mixed response to technology

    children using desktop computer

    Parents worry that their children spend too much time in front of screens while also recognizing technologies educational benefits.

    (Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

    This parental concern stems not only from the ubiquity of screens in children's lives, but the well-publicized relationship between screen time and child development. Headlines abound citing the pernicious effects screen time has on cognitive and language development. Professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, issue warnings that too much screen time can lead to sleep problems, lower grades, weight problems, mood problems, poor self-image, and the fear of missing out—to name a few!

    According to Pew's research, parents—which Pew defines as an adult or guardian with at least one child under their care, though they may also have adult children—have taken these warnings to heart. While 84 percent of those surveyed are confident they know how much screen time is appropriate, 71 percent worry their child spends too much time in front of screens.

    To counter this worry, most parents take the measured approach of setting limits on the length of time children can access screens. Others limit which technologies children have access to. A majority of parents (71 percent) view smartphones as potentially harmful to children. They believe the devices impair learning effective social skills, developing healthy friendships, or being creative. As a result, about the same percentage of parents believe children should be at least 12 years old before owning a smartphone or using social media.

    But a deeper concern than screen time seems to be what content those screens can access. An overwhelming 98 percent of those surveyed say parents and guardians shouldered the responsibility of protecting children from inappropriate online content. Far less put the responsibility on tech companies (78 percent) or the government (65 percent).

    Parents of young children say they check the websites and apps their children use and set parental controls to restrict access. A minority of parents admit to looking at call and text records, tracking their child's location with GPS, or following their child on social media.

    Yet, parents also recognize the value of digital technology or, at least, have acquiesced to its omnipresence. The poster child for this dichotomy is YouTube, with its one billion hours played daily, many before children's eyes. Seventy-three percent of parents with young children are concerned that their child will encounter inappropriate content on the platform, and 46 percent say they already have. Yet, 80 percent still let their children watch videos, many letting them do so daily. Some reasons cited are that they can learn new things or be exposed to different cultures. The number one cited reason, however, is to keep children entertained.

    For the Pew Research Center's complete report, check out "Parenting Children in the Age of Screens."

    Screens, parents, and pandemics

    Perhaps most troubling, Pew's survey was conducted in early March. That's before novel coronavirus spread wildly across the United States. Before shelter-in-place laws. Before schools shuttered their doors. Before desperate parents, who suddenly found themselves their child's only social and educational outlet, needed a digital lifeline to help them cope.

    The COVID-19 pandemic has led many parents to rely on e-learning platforms and YouTube to supplement their children's education—or just let the kids enjoy their umpteenth viewing of "Moana" so they can eke out a bit more work. With that increase in screen time comes a corresponding increase in guilt, anxiety, and frustration.

    But are these concerns overblown?

    As Jenny Radesky, M.D., a pediatrician and expert on children and the media at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, told the New York Times, parents don't always need to view screen time as a negative. "Even the phrase 'screen time' itself is problematic. It reduces the debate to a black and white issue, when the reality is much more nuanced," Radesky said.

    Radesky helped the American Academy of Pediatrics craft its statement about screen time use during the pandemic. While the AAP urges parents to preserve offline experiences and maintain limits, the organization acknowledges that children's media use will, by necessity, increase. To make it a supportive experience, the statement recommends parents make a plan with their children, be selective of the quality of media, and use social media to maintain connections together. It also encourages parents to adjust their expectations and notice their own technology use.

    "We are trying to prevent parents from feeling like they are not meeting some sort of standard," Radesky said. "There is no science behind this right now. If you are looking for specific time limits, then I would say: Don't be on it all day."

    This is good advice for parents, now and after the pandemic. While studies show that excessive screen time is deleterious, others show no harm from measured, metered use. For every fear that screens make our kids stupid, there's a study showing the kids are all right. If we maintain realistic standards and learn to weigh quality and quantity within those standards, maybe parenting in the digital age won't seem so darn difficult.

    How meditation can change your life and mind

    Reaching beyond the stereotypes of meditation and embracing the science of mindfulness.

    • There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to what mindfulness is and what meditation can do for those who practice it. In this video, professors, neuroscientists, psychologists, composers, authors, and a former Buddhist monk share their experiences, explain the science behind meditation, and discuss the benefits of learning to be in the moment.
    • "Mindfulness allows us to shift our relationship to our experience," explains psychologist Daniel Goleman. The science shows that long-term meditators have higher levels of gamma waves in their brains even when they are not meditating. The effect of this altered response is yet unknown, though it shows that there are lasting cognitive effects.
    • "I think we're looking at meditation as the next big public health revolution," says ABC News anchor Dan Harris. "Meditation is going to join the pantheon of no-brainers like exercise, brushing your teeth and taking the meds that your doctor prescribes to you." Closing out the video is a guided meditation experience led by author Damien Echols that can be practiced anywhere and repeated as many times as you'd like.
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