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Real Florida: Pink power

[Times photo: Ken Helle]
The wild flamingo keeps eating as observers pass. Flamingos eat little things, but they are fond of blue-green algae. It's what gives them their pink color.

By JEFF KLINKENBERG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 29, 2002

Florida loves flamingos. Even though they may not be from here. And plastic ones outnumber wild ones. And they are a bit strange.

If flamingos were not real birds, we would have to invent them. Ugly and beautiful, clumsy and graceful, they represent everything nerdy and cool about our state.

So speaketh a man who knows that flamingos may not even be native Floridians. As a Chicago-born guy who has been known to decorate his lawn with plastic flamingos, I can live with the contradiction.

Whether the flamingos I see so rarely in the Florida wild are actually escaped zoo birds hardly matters to me. As a lifelong member of what I call the cult of the flamingo, I'll take my flamingos however I can get them.

I saw my first live one in the early 1950s at a Miccosukee Indian village near Miami. The tame flamingos pranced, stretched their wings and honked. Mainly, they looked like weird, pink, upside down croquet mallets from Alice in Wonderland.
[Times photo: Patty Yablonski]
Candace Arnold, a park ranger at Sunken Gardens in St. Petersburg, meets with one of her charges, a member of the attraction's small flock of flamingos from Chile. It has a feather stuck in its beak.

The flamingo mystery

Nobody knows for sure when flamingos came to symbolize the Florida tropics. We do know that John James Audubon, the famous painter and naturalist, saw a flock in the Florida Keys in 1832.

Back in London, he must have dreamed of pink feathers. Audubon implored friends in America to kindly shoot him a flamingo and send it his way. Six years passed before he received a model from Cuba. It was dead, of course, but Audubon gave it a kind of mortality. His painting is the most famous rendition of the bird ever captured on canvas.

The flamingo has always vexed Florida birders.

Are they or are they not Florida residents? A prominent ornithologist described seeing an immense flock -- more than 2,000 birds -- near Cape Sable, in the western Everglades, in 1884. In 1901, an expert birder reported seeing a number of flamingos at Sugarloaf Key, near Key West, sitting on what appeared to be nests. Many experts today scoff. It's the only account of a flamingo nursery in the Florida wild. But nobody wants to say it's impossible.

Today, the best place to see a flamingo in the wild is at, appropriately, the tiny community of Flamingo, perched on Florida Bay at the southernmost point of the mainland. I've seen a few stragglers from canoe near the visitor center and saw a good-sized flock a decade ago -- from, well, you won't believe me.

When I tell people I saw a flock of flamingos from the seat of my bike, they usually think I'm telling a fish story. But no, it's a flamingo tale, and true.

From a Florida Bay boardwalk, I saw a flock of 23. I enjoyed them until mosquitoes almost as big as flamingos sent me pedaling like Lance Armstrong.

A signature product

[Photo courtesy of Donald Featherstone]
Donald Featherstone shows off his prized creation, the plastic flamingo as we know it. He developed it in 1957 for a New England company that makes plastic animals.

It's easier to see a plastic flamingo on a lawn than a feathered one on a Florida bay. I used to have two plastic specimens in my yard. A guy I talked to recently has 57 in his yard in Fitchburg, Mass.

Donald Featherstone has the perfect name for a flamingo fancier. Featherstone is the inventor of the plastic flamingo as we know it.

An art school graduate, he dreamed of creating a masterpiece. In 1957 he did, at Union Products, a New England company that makes plastic animals.

His first creation, a duck, sold respectably.

"But everybody loved flamingos," he told me by telephone. "I got myself a National Geographic magazine and found a photograph to use as a model. And I made myself a plastic one."

The company has sold 20-million. Since 1987, each flamingo has carried Featherstone's signature. "I never made a penny from it except for my salary," he said. He retired last year at age 65.

"I know some people think plastic flamingos are tasteless and tacky, but I love them," he said. In fact, when Harvard University honored him with one of its humorous Ig Nobel Awards, he attended.

"The award is for an endeavor that should never have been undertaken," he said, and laughed.

I hate plastic flamingo snobs. It is hard to imagine a Florida without flamingos, plastic or otherwise. They are part of a culture that includes coconut head dolls and sea shell lamps.

A few years ago, in St. Petersburg, a city that appreciates its flamingos -- flamingo kitsch was celebrated at its history museum recently -- a guy named Ron Mason walked outside early one morning to pick up his paper. The Sunday St. Petersburg Times was roosting on the lawn, and so was a big flock of plastic flamingos.

Mason, who used to be a city councilman, didn't have to laugh, but he did.

For years, he was known for his affection for anything having to do with flamingos. He had plastic flamingos, flamingo dolls, flamingo candle holders and flamingo salt shakers. He once shook up his neighborhood at Christmas by displaying a nativity scene in which plastic flamingos were substitutes for traditional camels. Under the suit he wore to City Council meetings -- and I am only taking his word for this -- he sometimes wore flamingo-decorated underpants.

So who and why had somebody put 60 plastic flamingos on his lawn?

He had been flocked.

Flocked is a relatively new term in Americana. It means somebody who likes you, or maybe doesn't like you, sneaks into your yard at night and decorates the lawn with a flock of tacky, plastic flamingos.

Ron Mason and his wife, Pat, go to First United Methodist Church of St. Petersburg. The church's youth club wanted to raise money for its programs. Some genius suggested the idea of selling flocking insurance to members of the congregation. For a small donation, church members could buy insurance against flocking.

For some reason, nobody approached the Masons. And so they got flocked one Saturday night. Pat Mason packed her car with the flamingos and asked her church for the names of other people who had neglected to buy flocking insurance. She got a name.

"A banker's wife, and I did the flocking after Bible study," she said. "It was a nice yard in Allendale. We were very scared that somebody would come out of the house with a shotgun. But we got away with our little crime."

Birds of a feather

Warning: R-rated, and maybe even X-rated, flamingo talk ahead.

Laura Wittish sleeps with flamingos.

She is an animal curator at Busch Gardens in Tampa. Busch Gardens has the largest collection of real flamingos in our part of the state. She oversees a flock of 300 Caribbean flamingos, kept semiwild, at the attraction. Their wings are clipped regularly, but otherwise, they have little interaction with people.

A smaller flock of birds, raised from eggs, is tame. When a television talk show host wants a live flamingo or two for a program, Laura brings them. When Busch Gardens attends trade shows, Laura goes and does flamingo public relations.

"Flamingos stay in the room with me," she said.

Say what?

Startled by her confession, I forgot to ask if she ordered room service, and if she did, if the waiter asked what a single woman was doing in a hotel room with a flock of flamingos, at least one of them a male.

"The first thing you do is flamingo-proof the room as best you can. You put the toilet seat down, otherwise the flamingos will play in the water. The shower curtain goes up out of reach. You hide the toilet paper.

"Flamingos are like curious children. They want to play with everything in the room. They go around and peck at everything. It's important to keep them amused, so we do bring lots of mirrors. Flamingos like to look at themselves.

"I put up blankets or something as barriers during the night so I can sleep. The flamingos sometimes take a while to settle down. I always remember to turn on a night light. Flamingos are a little scared of the dark."

In the spring, things get even spicier. It's mating season.

Here we get to the X-rated stuff.

Male flamingos march in unison among the rest of the flock. They bob their heads, in unison, and look quickly to left and right, also in unison. Imagine a large company of performers dancing like Egyptians and you get the idea.

Every once in a while, a male flamingo displays his wings and struts around like some lothario in a zoot suit. And near the end of the mating ritual, Casanova will suddenly hide his head behind his posterior.

Of course, this hard-to-get behavior drives the object of his affection wild. Now she wants him; she wants him bad. She leaves the flock and enters the water, the boudoir. It's the signal for amore.

Afterward, the new couple builds a small nest out of mud. A nest looks like a volcano, with an excavation in the middle. That's where she deposits the single egg. Both parents take turns sitting on it. A day or so before hatching, the chick starts chirping from inside the egg. The parents now and forever know the sound of their offspring. After it hatches, after it starts stretching its legs, they can always find it by its chirp.

Flamingos eat little things, bugs and tiny shrimp, but they especially are fond of blue-green algae. It's what gives them their pink color. Parents that are feeding their young often lose their pinkness. All their energy is going to baby.

I don't live near Busch Gardens, but I pass Sunken Gardens in St. Petersburg all the time. Sunken Gardens has a modest flock of flamingos from Chile. They're smaller than Caribbean flamingos and maybe a little stinkier. But, hey, my personal hygiene is not always perfect, either.

The last time I visited Sunken Gardens, I looked up my old friend Candace Arnold, a park ranger who has an in with the flamingos.

"You want to go in the flamingo pit?" she asked.

I did.

"Squat down. Don't move around. Stay quiet."

Out of the corner of my eye I watched a flamingo approach from the side. I felt something exploring my shoelaces and my pants leg and the back of my shirt. It was the flamingo's bill, grooming me.

"You're being loved my a flamingo," Candace said.

Waiting for the wild things

[Times photo: Ken Helle]
A rare sight in Florida -- a flamingo in the wild, that is, not the power plant.

Morning. Tampa Bay. Near the mouth of the Alafia River.

Rich Paul, of National Audubon, who monitors the bay's bird-infested islands, was steering the boat.

I was hoping to see a flamingo in the wild, the longest of long shots, especially in Tampa Bay.

Yet, I had hope. From time to time people do report seeing a flamingo at the mouth of the bay, near Anna Maria Island, at Egmont Key, even Fort DeSoto. Most of us dismiss such reports. Lots of people mistake those pink roseate spoonbills for flamingos.

"What's that?" my guide suddenly asked, whipping out binoculars. A half-mile away was something tall and pink.

We had our flamingo.

Behind it, rising in the mist, were stacks of gypsum. A phosphate plant.

The beast. The beauty. Just like the rest of Florida, where shopping centers tickle cypress swamps. A flamingo and a phosphate plant: Welcome to the country of Alice In Wonderland.

I watched in fascination. Flamingos have the longest necks in the bird kingdom. They must have the strangest way of eating. They move their feet to knock stuff off the bottom, then stick their heads, upside down, into the soup. They filter the goop through their bills. Then they start all over again.

"They're shy birds," Rich said. "If we get too close, they fly away."
[Times photo: Ken Helle]
National Audubon's Rich Paul, who monitors Tampa Bay's bird-infested islands, was the first to spot a wild flamingo, upper left, near TECO's Big Bend power plant.

The tide was high and we got closer. Ken Helle, a Times photographer, got out of the boat with his tripod and snapped pictures.

"What we're seeing is probably an escaped bird," Rich Paul told us. A few years ago, one flew away from Lowry Park in Tampa. A few others escaped from a park in Sarasota.

"But there is no way of knowing if this is one of those birds."

Ken climbed back into the boat with his camera as Rich pulled anchor. Now we drifted, closer and closer. The flamingo tried to stare us down from 30 yards away.

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