Florida Icon: The Pink Flamingo

by Barbara Nefer

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ators, swamps, beaches and palm trees all evoke images of Florida, but one icon stands neck and feathers above the rest: the pink flamingo.

Ironically, even though wild flamingos are rare as a snowstorm in the Sunshine State today, they grace Florida souvenirs ranging from plush toys to wedding cake toppers. Some shops even offer edible “flamingo droppings” (nonpareil-sprinkled chocolates or chocolate coated sunflower seeds).

It's possible, although not proven, that flamingos are native to Florida. As far back as 1832, John James Audubon, the famous painter and naturalist, reported seeing a flock in the Florida Keys.

Still, even if they're immigrants, this puts them in the same class as the majority of the human residents who couldn't resist the Sunshine State's siren call. According to the American Community Survey, only 33 percent of Floridians were native-born as of 2005. This trend is even more pronounced in Central Florida, where 56 percent of Metro Orlando's recent population growth was made up of transplants from other states and 18 percent flocked in from other countries.

Regardless of their origin, in the early part of the century the birds were apparently hunted to extinction. Soon the unthinkable had happened: Florida had been rendered flamingo-less.

Fortunately, new flamingos were added to Miami's Hialeah Park racetrack in the 1930s, vying with the Thoroughbreds as the animal top attraction. Visitors were amazed by their synchronized “marching,” which is actually an adaptation of a natural behavior. The birds were even honored with a namesake race, the Flamingo Stakes, a stepping stone to the Kentucky Derby. Soon they became a symbol of the quintessential Florida.

The infamous Bugsy Siegel once owned a part of Hialeah and was inspired by the flock (and also his long-legged girlfriend) to christen his Las Vegas resort “The Flamingo.” The garish pink hotel brought a taste of the Floridian tropics to the desert.

Although the racetrack is now defunct, the famous birds remain. They no longer march for the tourists, but you can still see a similar performance at Ardastra Gardens in Nassau, Bahamas.

Although they had a toehold to fame, 1957 was a pink-letter year in flamingo history. In October of that year their most famous incarnation, the pink plastic flamingo, was born. Ironically this Florida staple was invented by a New England native, appropriately named Don Featherstone.

By the late 1950s, injection molding had progressed to the point where 3-D plastic sculptures could be cheaply mass produced. A company called Union Products hired Don, an art school graduate, to create a menagerie that they hoped would take over America's lawns.

“Lawn decorations weren't new,” Don says. “They go back to the 1880s and '90s when they were bronze sculptures that only the very wealthy could afford.”

Over time, this morphed into less expensive concrete versions, but they still didn't make it into the mainstream. As Don points out, “You'd have to be pretty rugged to grab one in the store and carry it home!”

The molding process leveled the field and made yard art affordable to everyone, from mansion owners to trailer park denizens. “Where else can you get tropical elegance for less than 10 bucks?” Don jokes.

Although the flamingos were his personal version of Michaelangelo's “David,” Don didn't put all his eggs in one basket. He crafted 750 different items, and his plastic aviary included swans, hens, roosters, and a mama duck with babies in tow.

“Many of the others, like the swans, actually outsold the flamingos,” he reveals. “It sure made those little swans sad that the flamingos got all the fame.”

Don Featherstone with flamingos
Their success lies in the serendipitous melding of two national passions. In the 1950s, the color pink soared in popularity. At the same time, the United States was caught in the grip of “Florida Fever.”

The humble plastic birds symbolized what Florida meant to the Joe and Jane Average: travel, leisure, and an exotic locale. The Sunshine State was being heavily hyped as the ultimate tourist destination and a paradise for retirement living, and Americans were responding in droves. Don's creation allowed them to bring a bit of the tropics right to their own front yard, and in the latest color fad to boot.

Unfortunately, like other fads, the flamingo was fated to go the way of the hula hoop, mood ring and pet rock. As the 1960s faded into the '70s, this venerable icon of the Florida good life morphed into a symbol of baby boomer rebellion. Inevitably it waned in popularity, becoming a symbol of “visual pollution.”

“Pink Flamingos,” the controversial 1972 John Waters film, sealed the plastic avian's fate as the epitome of bad taste. Soon they were relegated to the object of prank thefts and theme parties. In 1979, the student government at University of Wisconsin planted a thousand fake flamingos on the lawn outside the dean’s office and the era of “flocking” had begun.

Although flocks of wild flamingo may be a rarity in Florida, the plastic variety's habitat extends well beyond the Sunshine State. “Flocking” is a way for someone to send a message by leaving a pink swarm implanted on the victim's lawn. The practice is often used for fund raisers; unlucky souls who don't buy flock insurance will find that their lawn has turned into a kitsch sanctuary.

A famous serial “flocking” took place in Celebration, Florida, in 1997. Although unapproved lawn art is forbidden by the town's covenants, a renegade flock moved from lawn to lawn among members of Community Presbyterian Church as a prayer reminder. They gained fame on the coattails of Celebration's “Disney Town” infamy and were featured on “48 Hours” and parodied on an episode of “The X Files.”

Like their distant cousin, the phoenix, pink plastic flamingos were simply biding their time before rising from the ashes of ridicule into a triumphant return. Florida Fever was rekindled in the 1980s, thanks to the popularity of the television show “Miami Vice.” The flock of flamingos featured in its opening credits re-cemented the birds as a Florida icon. The series also rekindled the Florida mystique of an exotic and affluent place, and many children of the 1950s and '60s were just about the right age to embrace a dose of nostalgia.

The triumphant comeback was so strong that Union Products found their flamingo sales skyrocketing once again, and they soon faced competition from two knock-off producers. By 1987, they were distinguishing the genuine article by engraving Don's signature on the bottom of their product.

For a brief time the signature was removed, but a boycott convinced Union to bring it back. Don jokes, “I had no idea it was so popular. I never thought people would be looking at a flamingo's butt!” By the time he retired in 2002, over 20 million of his pink plastic masterpieces had been sold.

The plastic flamingo's fortunes still seesaw between tacky-and-tasteless and retro-cool, but either way it's become a permanent part of the public's consciousness. Don even received an Ig Nobel award for his creation in 1996. Organized by the scientific humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research (AIR), the awards are given for “discoveries that cannot, or should not, be reproduced." It's all in good fun, and Don is proud of the honor.

Nearly three decades later, and six years into retirement, he continues to get fan letters and interview requests.Don still honors the year of the plastic flamingos creation by festooning his lawn with a flock of 57 plastic flamingos every summer. Like Floridian snowbirds, they migrate each winter into a warm dry place that protects them from bad weather. Like their real-life counterparts, the pink plastic flamingos had a brief flirtation with extinction. Union Products stopped making them in 2006, just shy of their 50th anniversary. Fortunately the copyright and molds of the original design were purchased by HMC International LLC, where production is being resumed.

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Florida flamingos will no doubt continue to inspire some unique souvenirs, events, and promotions. A recent example is Air-Tran Airways' “release” of 25 pink-clad “flamingo-inspired wanna-bes” in New York this March. They rode around on Segways, promoting the airline's Florida routes.

"What better way to remind New Yorkers that sunny Florida is closer than they think, than with the iconic pink flamingo?" said Tad Hutcheson, the airline's vice president of marketing.

They'll also continue to spread good cheer. Who can help but smile at the sight of these elegant yet comical avians? Pink plastic flamingos were even used in Bay St. Louis, Missouri, after Hurricane Katrina to brighten the environs of FEMA trailers and the spirits of their unfortunate occupants. Resident Jimmy Loiacano, who was in charge of beautification for the town, even planted three outside his own trailer. When two were stolen, he fastened the third to the grill of his truck.

The birds do seem to attract sticky fingers. One of the most famous flamingo-nappings took place in Kingston, Massachusetts, in 2003, when eight birds were snatched from the yard of Debbie Barber. Each month, Debbie diligently dressed her plastic pets in costumes ranging from Hawaiian shirts to elf suits. Apparently the thieves just couldn't resist their sartorial splendor and the flock disappeared.

Soon the theft turned into a real-life version of “101 Dalmatians.” In the movie, when a couple's litter of purloined puppies returns, they're accompanied by 84 more. Debbie's original eight-bird loss led to multiplied returns. Two flamingos were found along a roadside, eight showed up at the police department, and a woman drove 55 miles to present her with even more. Debbie cheerfully assumed the task of making costumes for the new additions.

Meanwhile, postcards and photos arrived from a vacationing plastic flamingo, presumably one of the originally missing flock who remains at large today.

The title of Florida State Bird might officially belong to the mockingbird (although it's currently being challenged by the indigenous scrub jay), but the flamingo holds that honor in popular opinion. When people get caught up in the Florida mystique, with visions of beaches and swaying palm trees, a certain tall, pink bird will forever hold a place in that picture.

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