Local residents often see a neighbor’s yard filled with plastic flamingos for a day and accept it as a fun, crazy, ‘Florida’ way to celebrate a birthday, anniversary, birth, or other event. But, in fantastic style, Sunken Gardens has just received a flock of 20 young Chilean flamingos, and they are here for good. These youngsters join 60-year old George and Lucy, the only remaining flamingos out of an original flock of 17. In 1956, the flamingo flock was the most iconic feature of Sunken Gardens.
The public was invited to ‘meet and greet’ the youngsters on Sunday, May 1 and anyone wearing pink received $1 off their admission price. Hours were extended, there was music and games, and a long-awaited public showing of the flock of 22 flamingos. A huge contingent of volunteers donated their time all day long to be roving docents, ‘bird sitters,’ lobby greeters, and anything else needed to manage the excited public crowd.
Best of all, it was the public that made all of this possible, giving donations ranging from coins to thousands of dollars. Those funds and the volunteer Flamingos Forever committee headed by local resident, Robin Reed, and the due diligence of the Sunken Gardens staff made this dream come true. And, the donations were all tax-deductible, thanks to the involvement of St. Pete Preservation.
The flamingos were transported via a climate-controlled van from the San Antonio Zoo in Texas on April 20. Sunken Gardens nature preserve supervisor, Bill O’Grady, traveled to San Antonio beforehand to meet the birds and let them become comfortable with him. They were instant friends, as O’Grady is known as a bird specialist at the Gardens.
The new flock is comprised of: ten birds 1-year-old or under (mostly gray-colored); two 1½-year-olds; three 5-year-olds (gray and white); two 13-year-olds; one 14-year-old; and two 6-year-olds (all flamingo pink).
Now, imagine enjoying a quiet retirement in your newly enlarged and renovated home, and then having 20 ‘grandchildren’ arrive one day to live with you – that must have startled the older birds a bit. Slightly hesitant at first, the youngsters were slowly introduced to George and Lucy in a small enclosure. The fencing was slightly moved each day to make a larger area. With only a few feathers ruffled, they settled in very easily and all obediently (usually) retire to the newly expanded night enclosure. Chief bird curator Frank Nesmith oversees everything.
George and Lucy have risen to the occasion, according to O’Grady – sometimes literally, as George stretches tall, spreads his wings, and even stands on an overturned pot. They herd the young ones, sometimes poking those that need it, and standing protectively between them and any outsiders. “The birds are not aggressive,” he explains, but they do need to know who is boss.
They even ‘posed’ for photos with newly adopted ‘parents’ at a thank-you reception hosted by Sunken Gardens staff and the Flamingos Forever group to honor those individual donors who purchased naming rights. The generous citizens who joined the bird-naming campaign ($3000 to name a bird) enjoyed the opportunity to welcome their birds home. Besides the photo op, each one got a plastic flamingo to take home for each named bird.
Reed spoke for all those involved when she observed, “I’m ecstatic and relieved at the same time!” When the crowd had gone, O’Grady observed with undisguised delight that the young flamingos were testing out the waters of the pond for the first time. They needed some ‘spa’ time after the photo session. Yes, they are home for good now.
The first of the naming donors was the Historic Old Northeast Neighborhood Association (HONNA) and their bird’s name is, of course, Honna! Another early donor was Animal House, naming their bird, appropriately, Belushi! St. Pete Preservation has not decided on a name for their bird at this time, but it will surely be a good one too!
Marion and Brian Mitchell not only ‘flocked’ Fourth Street with a Saturday Art Festival, but they named two birds after their grandchildren, Hadley and Emerson. “My family always came to St. Petersburg when I was growing up and we stayed on Fourth Street and went to Sunken Gardens regularly,” she recalls, adding, “The flamingos have a special place in my heart.”
There is a bird named Punky in honor of Bob Jeffrey’s mother, and one named Roz for her best friend. Donations came from Punky’s Bar and Grill with car wash events, fundraisers, and donations jars. Said Jeffrey, “I worked with the City when this campaign began – for me it all started with Sunken Gardens. It is a neat idea to bring the flamingos back.”
St. Petersburg High School had fundraisers, too, and named their bird Pfeiffer in honor of long-time school mascot, ‘Mr. Green Devil’ Bob Pfeiffer. His daughter, Sally Pfeiffer Baynard, a resident of the Old Northeast, attended the reception in his honor. Also living locally is Old Northeast resident Marsha Carson, who named her bird, Nigel.
Committee member and volunteer, Nancy Preis, named Gladys after her mother who had been a Sunken Gardens volunteer and was familiar with the original flamingos. Another committee member and longtime volunteer, Carol Skey, had a surprise birthday present from her husband – a bird named Carol. Committee member and volunteer, Gloria Matyszyk, and Dick Caldwell picked Ramon for their bird’s name.
Beth and Robert Timberlake named a bird Alma, while Cynthia Smoot Weller named her flamingo, Lindsey Marie. Paul Skipper, PJ and Lance named their bird Lynn Marie.
Last but not least, and quite outstanding among the naming donors were Bill and Maria Raspovic from Hudson, Florida, who called Reed last April saying they wanted to round out the campaign by naming five birds: Willy, Ali, Mari, Oscar, and Richy.
A total of over $50,000 was raised by the Flamingos Forever campaign. They never expected it to take three years, but it was not an easy task. “Restocking the flock has taken the cooperation of literally hundreds of supporters,” addressing the crowd, Reed added, “The flamingo campaign has won the hearts of the people of St. Petersburg.”
Several of the campaign events were noteworthy. Sunken Gardens first created a display in their lobby where for a $2 donation children could purchase a small paper flamingo and attach it to the display. Over $5,000 was raised this way and visitors continue giving. This will now be used for a new campaign, Sunken Gardens Forever, which is now a 501(c)(3) foundation. The funds will be used for special projects such as a children’s garden, a small museum dedicated to the history of the Gardens, and the repair of a number of the older bird cages so the exotic birds can be housed appropriately.
Besides the bird-naming campaign, Reed also praised the Flamingo Fling event, and two fund raisers at Marion’s on Fourth Street, hosted by owner Marion Mitchell, garnering donations from stores, banks, and restaurants along that street. In addition, Councilman Jim Kennedy invited his flamingo-loving friends as well as the Flamingos Forever to make a presentation to City Council (the city did set aside $30,000 to build a new, larger overnight facility).
Kennedy wore his crazy, flamingo headdress when Mayor Kriseman and Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin cut the pink ribbon for the recent unveiling of the new enclosure. He showed up – again with his hat – to the reception with a proclamation from the City: May is now ‘Sunken Gardens Forever’ month every year.
Reed recognized the members of the Flamingos Forever campaign committee: Lesli Larmon, Carol Skey, Mary Anna Matthews, Nancy Preis, Gloria Matysyzk, Sally Lawson, Chris Stewart, and the Sunken Gardens staff, Bill O’Grady, Lauren Kleinfeld, and Sarah Corvalis.
Special thanks go to Jennifer Tyson, garden specialist, and ‘birdman’ Frank Nesmith for allowing this reporter and photographer, Susan Alderson, a special tour of the flamingo enclosure.