National Geographic : 1941 Jan
Flame-Feathered Flamingos of Florida Dr. Chapman definitely proved that both sexes take part in the incubating, the occupant of the nest being relieved by its mate late in the afternoon and early in the morning. Seven-Year Mystery Solved As these domestic activities failed to take place among the Hialeah Park flamingos, their failure to propagate became known as the "seven-year mystery." The department in charge tried several experiments. The terrain surrounding the in field lake consists largely of sand and there fore is unsuited for building the huge nests. For that reason, each year at mating time generous quantities of loose soil were supplied, together with running water, the dirt being deposited 200 to 300 feet from the lake. Still nothing happened. Finally, in the spring of 1939, Joseph Mor row, chief of the grounds department, decided to place the dirt on an island in the south end of the lake, and by that decision he ended the seven years of baffled hope. The island is nar row, and dirt deposited there was near the water on either side. As later events showed, the instinctive requirements of the birds called for nesting near the water's edge. Happy at last, the flamingos promptly fell to work, with such vigor and enthusiasm as to give ample evidence of wanting to make amends for those barren years. Soon the island bore a great colony of nests, constructed in the most approved manner; for, in addition to plenty of soft mud, sticks and dry grass were supplied to be used as reinforcing mate rial by the brilliantly colored engineers. This success wrote a new chapter in our ornithological history. It definitely marked the first time within the knowledge of man that the flamingo had hatched and reared its young on the North American mainland. The sixty vigorous birds which were produced that year, and the 55 last year, form a remark able record in view of the fact that the con tribution of each female is almost invariably but one egg a year and the period of joint in cubation is about 34 days. With such an encouraging start in this lati tude, and with the lower Everglades to become a great subtropical national park in which bird life will be protected, it may not be difficult to envisage the possibilities of the Cape Sable region as a home of thousands of these glamor ous creatures. Their flight at eventide would present a scene of such splendor as to chal lenge the glow of a tropical sunset. During the earlier days of the Hialeah Park colony, the flamingo complex brought one problem after another. One that called for much thought and care was the matter of food, for the dietary habits of flamingos are among the strangest of all known fowls. Related to the heron family, flamingos are wading birds living in the shallow water of the marshlands, preferably the tidal marshes. Because of the peculiar dip to the outer part of the bill, they cannot attack food by moving the head and bill in a vertical plane, but must resort to a scooping motion while the head is upside down under water. In their wild state they stand in the shal lows, treading the marsh bottom with their broad, webbed feet until the mud is thoroughly mingled with the water. They then scoop up the mixture and let the water escape through their fine "teeth," or bill ridges, retaining minute mollusks as their sole bill of fare. How to Feed a Flamingo Certainly this process presents a difficult problem for hand feeding even to approxi mate. A careful study of food chemistry be came necessary, for a diet rich in certain vita mins was needed to maintain physical vigor and retain the glorious color of the plumage. The menu that has given best results at Hialeah Park is composed of cooked shrimp meal, cooked fine rice, special mash, and cod liver oil. Reduced to semiliquid condition and placed in steel troughs, the food is given the birds once each day. Strange as it may seem, flamingos appear to be quite immune from the ravages of predatory birds and animals. In 1939 fire in the Ever glades caused temporary migration of eagles, hawks, owls, raccoons, and possums, and their invasion of Hialeah Park caused considerable loss of young ducks and swans. So far as known, however, this invasion, which con tinued for several months, did not cause the loss of a single flamingo. The severe cold spell of the winter of 1939 40, which this time unhappily reached deep into south Florida, brought periods of sus tained cold that killed thousands of small birds and fish. Much concern was aroused regard ing the ability of the Hialeah Park flamingos to withstand such low temperatures. Though they no doubt suffered much discomfort, they passed through it without a single casualty. Thus is offered further proof of the oppor tunity to create vast colonies of these gorgeous creatures in the lower reaches of the Ever glades, once that area becomes a protected sanctuary for wild life. Already, by careful study at Hialeah Park, aids to Nature have been discovered that restore to southern Florida this spectacular species which has not nested there within the memory of man.