As It Happens

Betty, the oldest flamingo of her kind in North America, lived 'a remarkable life'

Betty, the oldest flamingo of her kind in North America, has died at the age of 67, living well beyond what anyone expected of her. For decades, she cared for her fellow birds at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.

The beloved bird, who looked after all the chicks in her flock, died at 67

The average lifespan of a flamingo in captivity is around 26 years, but Betty from the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., lived to be 67. She was the oldest Caribbean flamingo in North America. (Heather Anderson/Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute)

Story Transcript

It's been tough for keepers at Smithsonian's National Zoo as they say goodbye to their matriarch flamingo.

Betty was the oldest Caribbean flamingo in North America at the age of 67, living well beyond what anyone had expected of her. But what was most memorable about her was how for decades, up until her death last month, Betty cared for her fellow birds at the zoo and took them under her wing. 

"When we had chicks or young birds in the yard, Betty was always there," Sara Hallager, curator of birds at the National Zoo, told As It Happens guest host Peter Armstrong.

"She seemed to have a very protective, nurturing way about her."

Named for Betty White

Betty was born in the wild around 1954 and arrived at the Washington, D.C., zoo in 1976. For years, she had an ID band attached to her leg with her original name, "Number 89." In 2021, she was named after the iconic TV star Betty White, who died in December at the age of 99.

The Smithsonian's National Zoo has long considered Betty its matriarch flamingo, as she cared for many foster chicks over the years. (Heather Anderson/Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute)

Hallager worked closely with the beloved flamingo for almost 35 years. She says she could recognize Betty among a flock of more than 70 flamingos because the bird would often stand on the periphery, as if she was watching over the younger feathered creatures.

"When you work with an animal for that long, they're very close to you," Hallager said. "It was very sad when she finally passed."

An inept mate 

Betty raised foster chicks year after year at the National Zoo, and hatched only one offspring her whole life.

Flamingos are serially monogamous, mating with one partner throughout their lives. But for many years, Betty had a partner who didn't quite know how to breed.

"He always copulated with her head," Hallager said. "And after he was done, he kind of jumped off and flapped his wings and honked. And I thought [he thought] to himself, you know, 'Great job.'"

After Betty, the oldest flamingos at the National Zoo are six birds in their mid-30s. Her keepers have not unlocked the secret to her unusually long life. (Heather Anderson/Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute)

Betty laid eggs, as many birds are still reproductively geared to do so, but they weren't fertile. 

Most zoos move the eggs to an incubator for safekeeping after flamingos lay them. The keepers give the parents a dummy egg made of plaster to sit on. That's when zookeepers saw great parenting skills from Betty and her partner, so they decided to give her other flamingo chicks to raise.

"It's kind of funny," Hallager said. "I always thought that she and her mate must have thought that that's how you make flamingo babies, by copulating with Betty's head."

"Betty just seemed to accept it. Like, she didn't try and turn the other way or anything. They just, that's how they did it."

Aside from Betty, the oldest flamingos at the National Zoo are six birds in their mid-30s. All of the birds, she said, received the same standard of care, so the keepers are struggling to unlock the secret of Betty's long and healthy life.

"It's unusual for a flamingo to live this long," Hallager said. "We've had other flamingos in the flock that have lived into their 40s and 50s, but never a bird that lived [a] documented 67 years. 

"It really was a remarkable life."


Written by Mehek Mazhar. Interview with Sara Hallager produced by Ben Basran.

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