Our first full-coverage blanket of snow has arrived in the Northland and unlike last winter, my bird feeders are being emptied regularly by a variety of visitors. You may recall that last winter while some birdwatchers were enjoying a an excess of winter finches, I couldn’t have gotten any birds to show up if I’d paid them. I haven’t had any unusual or exciting sightings, but I have goldfinches, pine siskins, northern cardinals, mourning doves and dozens of chickadees getting busy every day. Our three most common woodpeckers — downy, hairy and pileated — are also regular guests. I haven’t seen any of the American tree sparrows that used to teem around the feeders in winter but I’m hopeful that the return of their friends means they’ll come around soon.
The most unusual thing I’ve observed this season is the almost total absence of dark-eyed juncos. These round little ground-feeders typically descend in the area in hordes of hundreds in fall and early winter and then move further downstate for the duration of cold weather. I only saw a few stragglers this year and it didn’t really seem like fall without them.
But with the onset of cold weather, many of us are thinking longingly of escaping to a warmer setting. One of those people may be the guy or gal down on Highway 13 south of Ashland with the impressive display of carved flamingos (and pelicans). Driving by made me wonder where flamingos are actually found in the wild (and by in the wild I don’t mean living in an enclosure with a fountain in a resort in Las Vegas or Cancun). Some quick research taught me that there are in fact real flamingos living their best life right here in North America and lucky travelers may be able to catch a glimpse of them.
American (or Caribbean) flamingos are large wading birds that reside in northern parts of South America, around the Caribbean islands, and the Yucatan region in Mexico (there’s also a population in the Galapagos that some scientists consider a separate species). They look pretty much like the familiar cartoonish yard decorations, with their long curved necks, banana-shaped bills and flamboyant pink plumage. American flamingos are smaller than their counterparts in Africa, but they make up for it by being much more brightly colored. They live and breed in brackish shallow habitats like lagoons and mangrove swamps and get that bright color from carotenoids in the algae and brine shrimp that they eat. But they aren’t just pieces of kitschy Americana: they have a lot of fascinating traits and behaviors.
American flamingos are described as monogamous, but they sometimes breed in nontraditional families with peculiar dynamics. Some of them live in trios. If there are two females and one male, the females tend to fight while the male (wisely) stays out of it. When there are two males, the subordinate male often does most of the incubation and chick care. Sometimes chicks are raised by a quartet, where the two females get along better and the subordinate male just hangs around and doesn’t help with the kid (flamingos usually raise one chick at a time).
Chicks aren’t mature and independent until they’re 6 years old, and flamingos live to be around 40, some of the longest-lived birds in nature. They can drink salt water without any trouble thanks to their bodies’ highly complex system of sodium regulation. And the coolest thing about this species of flamingo is that there are two populations right here in the U.S. There’s a colony in Cameron Parish, Louisiana and another in southern Florida. For a long time it was assumed that the Florida residents were escapees from captivity. Some of them may be, but recent studies indicate that the flamingos in southern Florida are in fact natives and their numbers may be increasing.
So when you’re shivering with cold this winter, give a thought to our pink friends to the south who don’t have to migrate to have year-round warmth. Or just get yourself a yard decoration.
Sarah Morris is a bird-watcher and outdoorswoman who explores northern Wisconsin from her home base in the town of Gingles. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.