National Geographic : 1951 May
Flamingos' Last Stand on Andros Island BY PAUL A. ZAHL With Illustrations from Photographs by the Author ABOUT ten years ago a visitor crossing one of the numerous shallow lakes that dot Andros Island in the Bahamas might have seen a breath-taking sight. First he would spy a long thin line of pink at the water's edge. As he came closer he would hear a strange squawking, like the constant gabbling of wild geese. Then, as if on signal, the noises would abruptly give way to an apprehensive silence. When the visitor came within 100 yards of the shore line, the rasping clamor and chatter would begin again, growing louder and louder. Suddenly countless flaming "jets" would streak over the water like a quivering sheet of fire-thousands of gleaming red flamingos boiling into the sky and quickly disappearing into a mirage-like horizon (pages 648-649). Today man could comb Andros in vain for flamingos. He might see eight or ten stray ones shoot overhead in a V-formation and sweep out of sight behind the trees. But no red multitudes. The grotesquely beautiful flamingo of Andros faces the same fate that made the ungainly dodo extinct about 250 years ago. Outpost of the Bahamas Detoured for centuries, desolate Andros, 110 miles long and about 30 miles wide, lies baking in the white sun. Occasionally it is tilted back on its heels by a hurricane roaring out of the Caribbean storm womb. In the years before the war the world had left Andros, largest of the Bahamas, to a few thousand natives who dwelled in wind-resist ant limestone huts in the small towns and communities along the east coast. They eked out a living raising corn and coconuts and fishing for sponges, conches, and spiny lob sters. Here also a few white men found refuge from a maddening world. The interior and west coast of the island are uninhabited. For the most part, these areas have remained little known since the beginning of time. Like all of Andros, they are a conglomeration of hundreds of irregular land patches interlaced by shallow waterways, some narrow, some expansive. Scrubby man grove brush covers the land. Dangerous sharks and leg-ripping barracuda cruise the shallows. Moray eels, sting rays, fish, and other marine life abound. Such wasteland and solitude was a haven for the flamingo (derived from the Latin flama, meaning flame). For years flocks of them fed on the mollusks found in the sand bottoms of the salt lakes, mated and nested on the low, flat shores. The flamingo, which brought color to an otherwise drab scene, claimed Andros as its cherished and undefiled home. And, strangely enough, for the shy, nervous flamingo Andros was one of its last stands the world's end. Forty years ago the island, lying north of Cuba and off the southeast tip of Florida (map, page 639), had a popu lation of many thousand flamingos. Feel ing the pinch of encroaching civilization nearly everywhere else in this area, they prospered on the by-passed and seemingly forgotten island. But Andros was rediscovered during the last war by man and his technology. The big flamingo city found on Andros by the late Dr. Frank M. Chapman of the American Museum of Natural History, New York City, in 1904, was as surely a war casualty as Leningrad, Warsaw, and Berlin. In the early 1940's, military planes roared through sun-drenched Bahama skies on prac tice maneuvers. Pilots were at first per plexed by the sight of immense vermilion patches which mottled the land below. More than once a young airman, bored with routine pattern flying, would bank out of formation, descend on a great mass of this red-pink color, and give gleeful chase to the terrified birds. When perhaps a half-mile away, the pilot could make out some movement among the birds. Those nesting would rise uneasily. Thousands of ungainly black-beaked heads would periscope and freeze in the direction of the approaching intruder. No Protection-Only Hysteria Rising from their nests, the birds would reveal a myriad of mud mounds, bowls ex tending above the shallow water level (page 652), the center of each punctuated with a single chalk-white egg, rarely two. The air would well with honks of raspy terror. The wild flamingo, Phoenicopterus ruber,* * See "Large Wading Birds (Herons, Ibises, and Flamingos)," by T. Gilbert Pearson, with paintings by Maj. Allan Brooks, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGA ZINE, October, 1932.