I will admit, some birds are really dumb. Once, while we were trying to catch a Wompoo Fruit Dove in our aviary, the bird tried to avoid my net by flying between me and the wall I was practically touching. He got wedged between my back and the wall and I was able to gently pick him up and put him in a carrier. Other birds are so reliant on their flock that we as bird keepers often joke that they only have one brain cell to share among them. Flamingos are a prime example.
Our flock of Chilean Flamingos lives in a grassy yard attached to a building we call the Round Barn. Most days, they spend their time standing around the edge of their pool or eating out of the food pans on stands in the middle of the pool. The coral-pink of their feathers stands out sharply against the green grass, making this a striking exhibit. Whenever the keeper goes into the exhibit to clean the pool or put out food, the birds move to the other side of the yard in a big bunch that looks a bit like a giant wad of bubblegum being carried by a dozen ants. As soon as the keeper finishes their work and leaves, the blob of pink wanders back toward the edge of the pool. The only time this routine varies much is during the winter when a storm threatens to get a little nasty. Though these birds often live in the mountains in the wild and are fairly cold tolerant, we want them to stay warm and dry during a storm, so we bring them into a pair of stalls in the Round Barn. This might sound easy when you think that they are used to moving away from a keeper in their yard. In that sense, it is easy. Two or three keepers will go into the flamingo yard and form a loose human wall, directing the birds toward the door. The door is the same size as a standard door in a house – not big enough for the whole flock of flamingos to walk through in one bunch. Smarter birds like the cranes and storks that also live in the Round Barn handle this task easily and efficiently by forming a single file line and walking calmly inside. Flamingos panic. They look at the wall of humans walking toward them and start moving toward the barn. They look at the approaching wall of the barn and think, “Oh no, that’s a wall. We can’t go through that!” completely ignoring the wide open door. Turning away from the stone wall, they see that the wall of people has gotten quite a bit closer and is showing no sign of stopping. Eventually, the birds are trapped in a small corner of the yard, with the line of keepers in a semicircle around them on one side and the rock wall of the barn on the other. They mill around in an anxious blob until one brave bird, accessing more than his fair share of the communal brain cell suddenly realizes that one part of the wall is darker than the rest and doesn’t have rocks in it. This bird will take a tentative step through this miraculous opening and find he is getting farther away from the menacing wall of humans. Then, like ketchup squeezed through one of those “no mess” caps, the whole group of flamingos streams through the door in a mad rush, and finds a clean, comfortable stall to spend the night in.
The Bible often compares us to sheep, another flock animal that tends to think as a single unit. Many of us are followers, content to be carried along in the comfort and safety of the accepted path. But, in Matthew 7:13-14, Jesus tells us to break free of the crowd. “Enter through the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the road is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who go through it. How narrow is the gate and difficult the road that leads to life, and few find it.”