Elena Passarello’s column is about famous animals from history. This week: two flamingos escape to the Gulf.
It is a black eye, to be honest. It was basically an error. We are not fond of this story.
—Scott Newland, Sedgwick County Zoo
Jay points the boat in the direction of a couple of large pink dots. And as we approach closer, the dots start developing long necks and legs.
—The birder Neil Hayward
Every once in a while they’d walk 10–15 feet apart, but then they’d just come back together and move as one.
—The birder Nate McGowan
Names: 492 and HDNT
Species: Phoenicopterus roseus and Phoenicopterus ruber, respectively
Years Active: 2005–present
Distinguishing Features: yellow ID tags, monogamous tendencies
Skills: escape artistry, international travel, standing on one leg
Habitat: The Gulf Coast (by way of Tanzania, Kansas, Wisconsin, and the Yucatán)
Additional Notes: On June 27, 2005, a ten-year-old flamingo escaped the confines of its Wichita zoo with another pale-pink inmate. Zookeepers hadn’t properly clipped either flamingo’s wings—a regrettable error, they later confessed—and the birds simply took flight when no one was watching. The fugitives, members of an “old world” species called the greater flamingo, had recently arrived in Kansas from a colony in Tanzania. They hadn’t even been named yet and were only identified by the numbered tags on their right legs; their sex was also undetermined. Despite this lack of human knowledge, the flamingo known only as 492 would soon join a long list of headline-making runaway animal celebrities, thanks to its bold escape.
Famous animal fugitives are legion; this past year alone has featured the viral jailbreaks of Inky the Octopus (who squished across an aquarium floor to slip out a drainpipe); Ollie Bobcat, reported missing from her enclosure in the National Zoo last Monday (but found near the bird exhibit Wednesday); and Sunny, a red panda that ghosted from the Virginia Zoo (and is still at large). We humans thrill over the creatures that outsmart us—those that go on the lam and rewild themselves into the free world. Perhaps we see in them a covetable wiliness, or maybe the escapees just make our planet—so much of it now cultivated, mapped, and conquered—feel vast again. And as long as these runaways have no taste for humans, we tend to support their newfound freedom.
Later in 2005, bird-watchers spotted 492 in a Wisconsin waterway, all alone and dangerously out of place. Its companion was nowhere to be found and was thus presumed dead. But 492 thrived: still twitchy, still searching. Then, at some point over that winter, 492 flew south, about the time that another, much younger flamingo absconded from its own home in Mexico and headed north.
The shores of Texas and Louisiana are a bird-watching Mecca, stocked with a carousel of species that visit that water in a yearly rotation. Dozens of breeds of gull, willet, coot, heron, and crane all take their turns in the Gulf, and when occasional rogue birds—called vagrants—arrive in the water, they send birders scrambling for their cameras. Such was the case a decade ago when Internet groups began buzzing about the two spots of pink light that a few birders had seen in the surf. When the birders found boats to take them closer to the pink spots, those spots became bodies: an anomalous and bonded interspecies pair of flamingos, neither of which should be anywhere near Louisiana’s salty shores.
Though the news of 492’s rediscovery was funny enough to make the national papers —fugitive found!—bird-watchers had little use for the large, pale flamingo. Its new companion, however, was a real prize. That deep-pink “American flamingo”—a smaller breed, native only to Mesoamerica and South America—was still considered wild, its species the only member of the Phoenicopteridae family that was on the American Birding Association’s checklist. Stateside birders couldn’t see something like it without a plane ticket and a passport.
Born on a Yucatán nature reserve some twenty thousand flamingos strong, the vibrant bird had had little contact with humans, save the one who banded it with a leg tag reading HDNT. It is unclear what prompted HDNT to leave its tight community, though some people now suspect the winds of Hurricane Rita blew the juvenile up to the States. No matter how it happened, when the bird arrived in late 2006, it was listed as the first wild American flamingo to set webbed foot on Louisiana soil.
Eight years later, this pair of “resident-vagrants” had become a staple in the Gulf, their annual returns to Port Aransas, Port Lavaca, or the Calctsieu Ship Channel noted on the birding blogs without fail. All species of this genus are highly social animals, many of which pair up for life, and these two rare birds were always, and I mean always, together.
Austin-based birdman Nate McGowan remembers “hearing people talk about those two forever. I was waiting for the right time and the right friends to head down,” he told me. Finally, one Saturday in November 2014, McGowan and three other birders drove to Cox Bay near Port Lavaca, where the flamingo duo had reportedly shacked up for the season. The group sped, in a tiny fishing boat, to an inlet behind the Alcoa plant. When the famous pink dots came into view, McGowan raised his binoculars to his eyes.
“Dude, that’s our bird!” his friend shouted. It took five more minutes to motor to the closest spot they could reach without spooking the happy fugitives—about fifty yards away, huge oil refineries rising behind their figures in the distance.
“It was so funny,” McGowan says. “They did everything in unison: standing in unison, stepping in unison. They even flew in unison.” His photos from the day include a gorgeous shot of what looks like a hot-pink bird (HDNT) with a pale-pink shadow (492). Their matching forms rise up from the water in a baffling synchronicity. As they launch, their legs retract into their bodies, bending at the knees in twin acute angles.
“We floated there for like thirty, forty minutes and just looked at them,” McGowan remembers. He calls the time spent in their presence “a Zen, catharsis thing,” likening it to “being on opiates—just watching them dip their bills down and shuffle out krill, watching them walk or fly a little.” A half hour spent this way showcases the real pull of bird-watching, according to McGowan. “Just to be out there, watching something beautiful instead of, you know, Law and Order.”
Sadly, McGowan’s sighting of the pair together was one of the last. In 2015, a Facebook page for birders announced a 492 sighting in Refugio County, but HDNT was nowhere to be found. Subsequent spottings were of 492 only, and now birders have little hope for the fate of its rare compatriot. Given the monogamous tendencies of flamingos, the bond between the two was one from which neither would voluntarily escape.
It’s easy (for this human, at least) to imagine 492 and HDNT as some cinematic outlaw couple, the leads in a Peckinpah film, maybe: a shifty Midwestern drifter finding solace in a fugitive from south of the border. Like Warren Oates and Isela Vega, the pair took off together in search of adventure (or maybe just solace). I can also see these two in a different kind of dusty romance, as best-friends-against-the-world Thelma and Louise. Or, considering their age difference, maybe they’re more like Ryan and Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon: two vulnerable and—despite the fact that they look so much alike—guarded scamps.
Whether they were lovers, buddies, or partners in crime, 492 and HDNT flew side by side for nearly a decade. When they bent their heads together and touched beaks, their necks made the shape of a heart. And that looks like love, no matter if its between best friends, family, or lovebirds. Real love boils down to keeping close in the time you’ve got.
“Birds die,” McGowan told me. “Assholes shoot whooping cranes and eagles fly into wind turbines. Bad shit happens in the world.” It makes sense to me, then, that a pair of gorgeous outlaws like this could only be together if they understood the stakes McGowan described. If they moved as one against the ticking clock, being beautiful together, even in a world that thinks their love makes absolutely no sense.
Elena Passarello is a Whiting Award winner and the author of Let Me Clear My Throat and Animals Strike Curious Poses, which will be released by Sarabande Books in February. She is one of the Daily’s correspondents.