If this were a Pixar movie — and as you read it, you might agree that it should be — it would open with a scene of Ben Shepard, a college student serving a summer internship with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, floating in a boat as he and a partner survey the birds on a group of islands about halfway between Houston and Corpus Christi.
Suddenly, his mouth falls open and his eyes grow huge. There, standing about 100 yards away among a flock of gulls, is a flamingo.
Of course, he tells a co-worker, it can’t be a flamingo because they’re not native to Texas. So he grabs his binoculars and sure enough, there it is: a pink, 5-foot-tall African flamingo.
In our movie, it’s time for a flashback. It’s the summer of 2003, when a flock of 40 flamingos from Tanzania were imported to the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kan.
Scott Newland, the zoo’s curator of birds, said if the birds had arrived as newborns, the staff would have performed surgery on their wings to keep them flightless. But the birds came to the zoo as adults, probably around 3 years old, and the institution considered it unethical to do the operation on birds that were already flying.
Instead, adult birds are kept grounded by feather clipping, which Newland compared to a person getting a haircut. It must be repeated each year as the birds molt their old feathers and replenish new ones.
In June 2005, on a very windy day in Wichita, a guest reported seeing two flamingos out of their enclosure. The staff had missed the signs that the feathers on birds No. 347 and No. 492 — the zoo doesn’t name them — needed to be clipped again, and they had flown out.
Attempts to approach the flamingos spooked them. They flew away to a drainage canal on the western side of Wichita, where they remained under observation for a week, Newland said. But the birds still wouldn’t tolerate people getting closer than 50 yards.
Zoo officials were working on a plan to approach them under the cover of night, using a spotlight to disorient them, but they never got a chance to try it. July 3 brought a terrible thunderstorm. And on Independence Day — a detail maybe even too corny for a movie — the birds were gone.
For unknown reasons, the flamingos went their separate ways. No. 347 flew north, was spotted in Michigan in August, but never was seen again. It probably did not survive the winter, Newland said.
But the other escapee flew south to Texas, where it found an environment that would suit it well.
“As long as they have these shallow, salty types of wetlands, they can be pretty resilient,” said Felicity Arengo, a flamingo expert at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
Soon after No. 492 arrived in Texas, it found an unlikely companion: a Caribbean flamingo that, Newland speculates, likely was blown into the Gulf during a tropical storm. They were seen together as early as 2006.
“Even though they’re two different species, they are enough alike that they would have been more than happy to see each other,” he said. “They’re two lonely birds in kind of a foreign habitat. They’re not supposed to be there, so they have stayed together because there’s a bond.”
Although they are often referred to as mates, no one knows the sex of either bird. Whether they are best friends or mates, they were not together when Shepard spotted No. 492. Could the Caribbean flamingo have died? Is No. 492 alone again?
Maybe, but Arengo said there were other explanations. They could have naturally gone their separate ways — a breakup similar to the one with No. 347. Or the other flamingo could have been nearby but out of sight.
“It’s possible they’re separated and will show up back together again,” she said.
Either way, Newland said, No. 492 could live another 20 years. He estimated the bird’s age to be 20, and flamingos in the wild can live into their 40s.
The escape was not the proudest day for the Sedgwick County Zoo, but Newland said No. 492 will be just fine. It speaks to conservation efforts elsewhere that the flamingo could find itself a suitable home, he said.
“It’s less about animals escaping from a zoo than how resilient the animals on our planet are,” he said.