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Full Circle: Pink Phoenicopterus Plasticus

By Peggy Keener

Mysteriously front lawns all over Austin will soon turn a flamboyant Pepto Bismol pink. What’s going on? Was there an explosion in Walgreen’s indigestion aisle or are tchotchkes simply taking over our city?

Credit (blame?) goes to the crazily devoted Friends of the Library who once again strive to line the library’s coffers one pink flamingo at a time. Last autumn we started too late and were flummoxed over how to jam steel flamingo legs into frozen ground. Now smarter, we plan to jam them into lovely soft summer earth.

For your information, flamingos (in either flesh or plastic) are not native to Austin. The fad began in 1957 when sculptor Don Featherstone was hired by a Massachusetts plastics company to create a pink flamingo. Why, you ask?

Well, it seemed that almost all of the post World War II houses looked identical. People couldn’t find their way home! To prevent confounded folks from stumbling about bumping into each other, one woman thought a pink flamingo might be the answer.

And it was! Incredulously, the skinny pink plastic bird transformed her humdrum home into a unique tropical paradise!

But, hold on. First Featherstone had to sculpt one. For starters, where was he going to find a flamingo in Massachusetts? And then how would he get it to pose? After two painstaking weeks, he finally created a mold from a National Geographic photo.

Like flies on a ham sandwich, pink plastic flamingos multiplied. Everywhere you looked they were elevating haplessly mundane yards into jazzy eye candy. Hip neighborhoods were ablaze with color. Pink!

And then, fowl ran afoul. In only ten short years the skinny-legged birds lost favor with folks who regarded their classy selves as having a higher sensibility. “Tacky” was how they described the pink yard art as they, the well-to-do, mocked the lowly taste of the plebians.

Alas, then yard flamingos were also driven to near extinction by the natural nature lovers of the Woodstock era whose cosmos did not include Ichabod Crane-like plastic birds. Even Sears dropped them from their catalogs … a damning declaration as powerful as a commandment from above.

It was Andy Warhol, the pop artist, who turned low brow into high brow. Thanks to him, the flamingos rose phoenix-like from the ashes—or more precisely from pink molten plastic.

Flamingo factoids: they come in six distinctly different species, stand four-five feet tall, and weigh four-eight pounds. Congregating in mudflats, they find saltwater prey by stirring the swampy mire with their feet. Then scooping up frothy beaksful of the goo, they strain it for food while expectorating the mucky water. They do this with their heads upside down! You, however, must neither try this at home nor in a mudflat. You are not a flamingo.

Flamingo feathers are sleek and cling to their bodies like pink naugahyde on a wing back chair. Neither embarrassment nor shyness are the reasons for their rosy hue. This comes from the beta-carotene in the crustaceans and plankton they eat. Zoo flamingos turn white if their diet is not supplemented with live shrimp or a special flamingo chow containing carotenoid pigments. (Blessedly, plastic flamingos do not have this problem.)

Their pinkness is nothing short of remarkable. Imagine what a rainbow of gorgeousness they would be if each species ate different colors. One group might eat only purple grape popsicles, while the others consumed only blue blueberries … or black licorice … or green green beans … or yellow egg yolks. They’d have to wear special flamingo sunglasses to shield their eyes from the brilliant kaleidoscopic results!

Black feathers appear under their wings, visible only in flight. (Our rental birds don’t have black underarm feathers. Also they cannot fly.) But, wow! Wouldn’t a huge flock of pink flamingos make terrific spokesmen for breast cancer awareness?

Highly social creatures, they stay in flocks of several hundred. (There is no record, however, of a genuflecting flamingo meeting Queen Elizabeth. Seriously now, their awkwardly backward bending legs would make for a highly unacceptable curtsey.) Dance freaks, each flock puts a slightly different spin on its ritualistic flamingo flamenco. If successful they marry and build a love nest.

There are, albeit, lazy bad-seed-flamingos lurking about who steal nests rather than building their own. The good-guy-flamingo-nest-builders must guard against these low-lifes while they share sitting on their single egg. This takes a month of non-stop togetherness. Nobody knows for sure what they talk about during this time.

The flamingo chick is fed by both parents. First with a liquid baby food called “crop milk” which is produced in their throats and later when their parents regurgitate regular flamingo food. Gerbers does not sell this.

Chicks have grey and white feathers. No pink appears for about two years when their straight beaks begin to curve.

It is my feeling that flamingos are not particularly religious. I think they atone for past sins by doing nothing. This may well have something to do with their questioning the appropriateness of wearing florescent pink into a confessional booth.

They surely do not have much of a sense of humor. Like when was the last time you heard a flamingo cracking a joke?

And contrary to popular (though faulty) belief, flamingos do not deliver babies. Storks rule here … or the staff at the new women’s center at Mayo. Moreover, flamingos do not make good house pets. Shrimp dinners are expensive and their nests are messy.

Because of their pinkness, flamingos do not make good undercover detectives. Additionally, you should not eat one for Thanksgiving. Who wants to chomp down on those skinny, loooong drumsticks … and their buffalo wings would not fit on your plate!

Flamingos are not endangered because their nests are built on swampland or mudflats. Predator birds are their biggest enemies although I do not see hummingbirds as being a danger.

The good news is that it’s really, really cinchy to get your own flock of Austin flamingos. Fill out an order form online (https://forms.gle/FY3YPaSvw2jck2g99) or stop in at the library (12 birds – $12, 24 – $24 and 36 – $36). Orders open on June 28 and flocking runs from July 12 – Aug. 30. Last year we were overwhelmed, so order early.

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