Disney Innovation Provides Greater Hope for Lesser Flamingos

What does this pitcher’s mound at ESPN Wide World of Sports have in common with a flamingo nest at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park?

Thanks to an innovative collaboration between two teams of cast members at Walt Disney World Resort, both are made from the same material!

The flock of lesser flamingos at Disney’s Animal Kingdom has been building nests seasonally near the Tree of Life on Discovery Island since 2003. But despite their best efforts, their breeding results haven’t been as successful as their greater flamingo cousins on Kilimanjaro Safaris who have hatched dozens of offspring. The lesser flamingos had only produced one chick in 20 years before the 2022 breeding season.

Flamingos typically nest on the ground and build tall mounds from dirt and mud to keep their eggs elevated and safe from water and predators.

This led members of the animal care team to ask, “What if we enhance the mud in the nesting area with baseball clay, because where else do tall mounds of dirt exist but on baseball fields?”

This out-of-the-box question led to an unlikely pairing with the Sportscape team at ESPN Wide World of Sports who has their own formula of clay for baseball and softball fields for events ranging from Little League to Major League Baseball.

“Baseball clay can differ depending on where you play and the weather conditions in your area, but it’s basically a mixture of sand and clay,” says field manager Tommy on the Sportscape team. “Our mixture at ESPN Wide World of Sports is roughly 78 percent sand, a little silt and nine percent clay. Here in Florida, we look for our clay to perk – or dry – as fast as possible given the amount of rain and sun we receive, and the demand of all of the events we host.”

And while it sounds simple, baseball clay is very temperamental. It has to have a certain amount of moisture and must be covered from the elements until it is ready for use. The clay is very malleable when wet, but once it sits in direct sunlight, the clay will bake like pottery in a kiln and become rock solid. This turned out to be exactly what the flamingos were missing.

And the result was … a homerun!

“After we introduced the new clay during last year’s breeding season, the flamingos began building bigger and better nests than we had ever seen,” shares animal manager Jamie of Disney’s Animals, Science and Environment.

Soon after, the birds began laying eggs. Seven eggs, to be exact, which have so far resulted in one chick who was appropriately named … Sandy!

“This is the first lesser flamingo chick we’ve had growing up on Discovery Island and the most productive breeding season to date!” exclaims Jamie. “Having the entire flock engaged in breeding behaviors and multiple pairs working on nests and laying eggs helps us rate the success of the baseball clay.”

Lesser flamingos are one of the most threatened species of flamingos due to habitat loss and habitat destruction, so this is great news for the species!

In addition to Sandy and a successful breeding season, this partnership also has resulted in another unofficial ambassador for the species.

“I am a flamingo person now,” shares Tommy. “I have flamingo lights in my office and flamingo pictures from the animal care team. It was a bird I probably never gave a second thought to, but after working with the animal keepers at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, it’s really piqued my interest!”

Catch more on Sandy, Jamie and Tommy on National Geographic’s “Magic of Disney’s Animal Kingdom,” airing Friday nights at 10/9c and streaming on Disney+.