Published Sunday, November 11, 2012

Column: Are flamingos really real?


Special to The Newnan Times-Herald

Dear Birdman:

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

Marvin, Mount Zion

Marvin, zoos do not invent birds. Only Dr. Seuss is allowed to do that. Zoo birds may not be happy birds but they are real. Wild flamingos can be found in places around the world, including Africa, India, the Caribbean, South America, Mexico, and the Galapagos Islands. They can also be found in parts of Florida. In fact, flamingos have been around for over two million years.

In the 1930s, in what can be described as one of the dumbest moves of the century, some bonehead captured a flock of flamingos in Central America and released them at the Hialeah Racetrack in Miami. The next day all the birds flew away. Duh! A few years later he tried again, only this time he clipped the birds’ flight feathers. A colony of nine hundred flamingos is there at the racetrack to this day.

Flamingos are unique birds. They are as tall as a Great Blue Heron and rail thin. Being thin and frail makes them just about defenseless. To protect their young they nest in large colonies in the middle of saline lakes and lagoons that are so scummy and gross even predators won’t go there. They build a tall mud nest, which looks like a top hat, to keep their single egg out of the water.

The flamingo’s feeding behavior is one of the most unusual in the bird world. A flamingo sticks its head upside down under water and sweeps it along the bottom. As it sweeps the bird sucks up mud and pond scum with its wide, hook-shaped bill. Then, more like a humpback whale than a bird, the flamingo forces the goo through tiny comb-like teeth across the edges of its bill and out of its mouth. This traps the algae and tiny crustaceans that make up the bulk of its diet. Its daily meal of muddy pond scum may explain how the bird stays so thin.

Back in the 1950s, when a trip to Florida was quite expensive and not yet an annual tradition, Florida souvenirs became status symbols. To capitalize on this trend a company up north decided to hire a sculptor to create a flamingo lawn ornament. A twenty-one-year-old designer, Don Featherstone, was given the job and the pink plastic flamingo was born. The timing was perfect because Americans were moving to the suburbs and needed something to add a splash of color to their green lawns.

Then came the rebellious sixties and flamingos quickly went from status to tacky and then disappeared from the landscape. But the late seventies and early eighties ushered in the tasteless disco era and suddenly tacky was back in style. The TV show Miami Vice helped put flamingos on the front page again. Plastic flamingos are still popular today, although most people buy them to annoy, not enjoy.

One last thing — the original plastic flamingos have Don Featherstone’s signature under the tail. If you want to know if the flamingos in your neighbor’s yard are originals, sneak over some night with a flashlight and peek under a bird’s tail. Just be sure you have a good story ready.

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