Bird Watcher's General Store

Flamingos Not Just Lawn Ornaments - 11/22/02

Dear Bird Folks:

I know that flamingos are real birds, but do they really exist in the wild or are they just an odd bird that zoos have created? And is there some secret reason why people have plastic ones in their yards?
- Dora, Barnstable

First of All Dora,

Zoos do not invent their own birds. Dr. Seuss is the only one allowed to do that. Zoos have real birds. They may not be happy birds, but they are definitely real. Flamingos are truly wild birds that can be found in many pockets of the world, including Africa, India, the Caribbean, South America and of course on Rt. 6A in Brewster. Flamingos can also be found in parts of Florida. In fact, flamingos have been around for over seven million years. Which makes them younger than most of Florida's residents.

Many of the Florida birds are escapees from parks and reserves. Back in the 1930's, in what can only be described as one of the stupidest moves of the century, some bonehead captured a flock of flamingos in Central America and released them at the Hialeah Race Track in Miami. The next day all the birds flew away. Duh! A few years later they tried it again, only this time they clipped the bird's flight feathers and a colony of 900 flamingos is there to this day.

Flamingos are totally unique birds. They are as tall as a Great Blue Heron only wicked thin, like a super model. Being thin and frail makes a flamingo basically defenseless. To protect their young they nest in large colonies in the middle of wet alkaline or saline lakes and lagoons that are so gross that even predators won't go there. They build tall mud nests, that look like top hats, to keep their eggs out of the water.

The flamingos feeding behavior is one of the most unusual in the bird world. A flamingo takes its wide, hook-shaped bill and sweeps it back and forth along the bottom of a lake or bay. As it sweeps its bill, the bird sucks up all of the bottom pond scum it can get. Then acting more like a Humpback Whale than a bird, the flamingo forces the gooey water out through tiny comb like teeth on the edges of its bill, trapping algae and tiny marine creatures which make up the bulk of the its diet. Their daily meal of pond scum probably explains how the birds stay so thin.

Back in the 1950s, when a trip to Florida was quite costly and not yet a yearly requirement, Florida souvenirs became a status symbol. To capitalize on this bizarre trend, a company in Leominster, Massachusetts, Union Plastics, hired a sculptor to create a flamingo lawn ornament. A twenty-one year old designer named Don Featherstone (I am not kidding) was given the job and the plastic pink flamingo was born. The timing was perfect as Americans were moving to the suburbs and needed something to add color to the green desert that they called a lawn.

Then came the rebellious sixties and flamingos quickly went from status to tacky and they disappeared from the landscape. The late 70's and early 80's ushered in the tasteless disco era and suddenly tacky was back in style. The TV show Miami Vice helped push flamingos back on the front page once again. Flamingo items are still quite popular, although most people buy them not to enjoy, but to annoy. Either way is fine by me.

It should be noted Dora, that the original style flamingos have Don Feathertone's signature under every bird's tail. So if you want to know if the flamingos in your neighbor's yard are originals, simply sneak over some night with a flashlight and peak under the birdís tail. Just be sure to have a good story ready, because you know you are going to get caught.

Artwork by Catherine Clark

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