Keepers Remember Betty, Our Oldest Flamingo

We are sad to share that Betty, our “matriarch” flamingo, was found deceased in her habitat Jan. 25. At 67 years old, she was the oldest Caribbean flamingo in the North American population. The median life expectancy for this species is 26 years in human care. A final pathology report will provide more information in the coming weeks, but she was in remarkably good health for a bird of her age. Her longevity is a testament to the dedication and care of our Bird House team.

Hatched in the wild around 1954, Betty arrived at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in 1976. Bird House keepers fondly recall that in a flock of more than 70 flamingos, Betty—who wore an ID band inscribed with the number “89”—stood out as an individual. Her favorite spot was just outside the perimeter of the flock, where she could easily keep watch over everybody.

Although Betty only had one chick of her own, she and various mates often raised foster chicks. Whenever a pair of flamingos lays an egg, keepers take it from the nest, substitute it with a replica, then place the real egg in an incubator for safe keeping. Once it is ready to hatch, they return the egg to the nesting grounds and give it to pairs who have proven they have the skills to incubate eggs and raise chicks.

Not only did Betty care for many foster chicks over the years, but also she served as a wonderful role model for flamingos that were hand-raised by keepers. Just recently, when two hand-raised chicks did not readily integrate into the flock, Betty patiently interacted with the youngsters and taught them how to be flamingos.

For 46 years, Betty served as an amazing animal ambassador for generations of animal keepers, scientists and visitors. We are grateful for all she taught us about flamingo biology, behavior and breeding. Our Zoo family misses her dearly.