For the Birds Radio Program: Plastic Lawn Flamingos

Original Air Date: March 11, 2002

A new species of plastic lawn flamingo seems to be popping up everywhere.

Audio missing


This year’s unusually mild weather has made it hard to think about spring-we’re still waiting for winter-but eventually the Northland will green up, people will start working on their lawns and gardens, and before you know it here and there plastic lawn flamingoes will start reappearing.

Ever since 1957 when Don Featherstone discovered this unique species, millions have been observed on their breeding grounds in Leominster, Massachusetts, where the US Fish and Wildlife Service has entrusted their management to the Union Products Corporation.

When I was studying avian physiology, I once dissected a few plastic lawn flamingos and was startled to discover that they have developed a system of internal organs so reduced in size as to be virtually impossible to detect. I learned in college biology that refinement and reduction of various organs can be evidence of evolutionary advancement , and if this is true, Plastic Lawn Flamingoes are advanced, indeed.

Although most sightings of them are on land, they are uniquely adapted for an aquatic life–even more so than loons and ducks, who must oil their feathers to waterproof them. A well-preened duck or loon’s feathers have a sheen that looks and feels rather plastic-like. In the case of lawn flamingoes , this plastic sheen is genuine. Although the species completely lacks a uropigial oil gland, water rolls off them like water off a duck’s hack. It’s odd that a species so well adapted to an aquatic lifestyle has switched its habitat to lawns and gardens, but perhaps there is a symbiotic relationship with the American robin that no one has fully elucidated. The one place I’ve seen them in an aquatic habitat is in northern Wisconsin, where a few pairs wade in natural ponds along Highway 2.

Many bird species are named for the people who first brought them to the attention of ornithologists, from Lewis’s Woodpecker and Clark’s Nutcracker to Audubon’s Warbler and Lincoln’s Sparrow. Although plastic lawn flamingoes are not named for Don Featherstone, members of this species more literally bear his name----on the right lower flank is a subtle field mark that looks amazingly like his signature.

However, in recent months, plastic lawn flamingoes have undergone a striking and disturbing change. Young birds are suddenly lacking this distinctive marking. Some ornithologists are saying that the new birds are not, in fact, members of the true species, Flamingo tackyvulgaris, but are imposters belonging to the species Flamingo cheapandinauthentica that simply do not belong on the American landscape.

So people are being asked to please not release any of the imposter birds in their backyards–birds lacking the distinctive Don Featherstone marking will compete for the extremely limited resources on which real plastic ]awn flamingoes depend, and may even be disease vectors that could possibly endanger this highly specialized but vulnerable species.

Many people have long disdained plastic lawn flamingoes for being tacky, vulgar, and excessively pink. But they are a true American species, not found breeding anyplace else in the world, and are certainly no tackier or more vulgar than, say, a governor who wears a boa and announced games for the XFL No one I know admits to actually owning or buying a plastic lawn flamingo, but please ask your friends and neighbors not to buy any that lack the Don Featherstone marking. If people are going to have plastic flamingoes on their lawns, they might as well be authentic ones.