For the Birds Radio Program: Flamingo Road
Flamingo tackyvulgaris makes occasional appearances in the northland.
(Recording of a Blue Jay)
Every now and then, I receive a letter I just can’t ignore. For example:
Dear Bird Lady:
Last summer a mysterious bird showed up in our front yard. After a few days I decided it must be dead because it never moved at all, but my husband argued that birds never die standing up with their eyes open, and I had to admit that it certainly did look alive, at least from the kitchen window. Then one day I looked at it from the living room and noticed to my horror that its left side was completely sunken in. My husband still argued that it looked fine to him. Since we didn’t know what else to do, we let it be. When the snows came, the bird disappeared.
But then last week I noticed that in a little patch where the snow had melted, there was the bird, still standing, with a snow pile sitting on its head.
Let me describe it for you. It’s pretty tall–probably at least three feet high–and is mostly pink. My husband says it’s an Andean Flamingo that escaped from Ecuador, afraid of being called a “pinko,” but I’m sure it’s a runaway flamenco dancer. Anyway, since we first saw it, I’ve noticed lawns all over town with what looks like exactly the same bird. Where do they come from? Why don’t they fly down south for the winter? And when is our bird finally going to leave our yard?
Well, dear anonymous:
What you describe doesn’t sound quite like an Andean Flamingo—that species winters in wetlands in the Andes at elevations of 10,000 feet—about 9,200 feet higher than Hawk Ridge. I suspect that your bird is a species known as the Plastic Lawn Flamingo–it’s scientific name is Flamingo tackyvulgaris. This species originated somewhere in the sunbelt, and extended its range northward following a similar expansion pattern to that of K-Mart Department Stores. Unlike other species of Flamingoes, which are neotropical birds, the plastic lawn species manages to remain pink without any shrimp or other crustaceans in its diet—as a matter of fact, ornithologists have yet to record any feeding habits at all for this bird. It’s hard to predict where one will turn up, but its preferred habitat seems to be lawns and gardens in cities and towns.
The plastic lawn flamingo is the only flamingo endemic to the United States. The Greater Flamingo, which many people expect to see in Florida, is actually a Caribbean species which only appears in Florida as an accidental species. There are many Greater Flamingos seen in Florida each year, but virtually all of these are captive birds or ones that have escaped from parks and zoos. John James Audubon saw several flocks of flamingoes in the keys in 1832, but he couldn’t get a shot at any. The bird he painted in his Birds of America was collected in Cuba. The first specimen of a wild flamingo in Florida was taken at Sugarloaf Key in 1901. Around the turn of the century, irregular wintering flocks of up to 1000 birds were reported near Cape Sable and Madiera Bay, and smaller flocks were reported from the Keys. Current reductions in the wild breeding population in the Bahamas have reduced the stragglers in South Florida to a very few individuals. We in the Northland have no chance of seeing the genuine article in the wild, but apparently plastic lawn flamingos are here to stay.
(Recording of a Blue Jay)
This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”