A Flamingo? In Texas? A Zoo Fugitive Since 2005 Is Still Surviving in the Wild

Flamingo No. 492 escaped with a companion from a zoo in Wichita, Kan., in June 2005, after keepers failed to clip their feathers. It was spotted in South Texas alone almost 13 years later.

That can’t be right.

A flamingo? In South Texas?

Ben Shepard, in the first week of his summer internship with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, thought it must have been something else.

The Texas A&M-Corpus Christi student was in a boat on May 23, surveying the birds on the islands of Lavaca Bay, about halfway between Houston and Corpus Christi, when he saw the pink, five-foot-tall bird about 100 yards away among a flock of sea gulls.

He peered through his binoculars to get a better look, and his eyes weren’t failing him — yep, that was a flamingo with an unmistakable tag just above one of its knees.

“I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure flamingos aren’t native to Texas,” he said to his colleague on the boat.

They are not. They generally can’t be found in the United States except for a few sightings in South Florida.

Mr. Shepard had the rare pleasure of spotting No. 492, an African flamingo that, for more than a decade, has shown you can still survive when no one gets around to clipping your wings.

If this were a Pixar movie — and when you read on you may agree that it should be — it would begin its flashback sequence in the summer of 2003, when a flock of 40 flamingos from Tanzania were imported to the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kan. Less than a year later in May 2004, the flamingo exhibit opened to the public.

Scott Newland, the curator of birds at the zoo, said if the birds had arrived as newborns, they would have been kept flightless by essentially amputating a part of the wing in which they had not yet developed sensation, before the bone was formed. But the birds came to the zoo as adults, probably around 3 years old, and the institution considered the practice unethical for birds of their age.

Instead, adult birds are kept grounded by feather clipping, which Mr. Newland called “no different than you or I getting a haircut.” It must be repeated each year, as birds molt their 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. No. 492 and No. 347 had flown out; the staff had missed the signs that their feathers needed to be clipped again.

Each attempt to approach the flamingos spooked them. Soon they flew away to a drainage canal on the western side of Wichita, where they remained under observation of park officials for a week, Mr. Newland said.

They couldn’t get closer than 50 yards away from the birds, and were stumped on how to get them back. Perhaps they could try in the cover of night, using a spotlight to disorient them.

They never got the chance. July 3 brought a terrible thunderstorm. And on July 4 — Independence Day, a detail maybe a little too on the nose for the Pixar movie — the birds were gone.

For unknown reasons, the flamingos went their separate ways. No. 347 flew north, and was spotted in Michigan’s AuTrain Lake in August 2005. The bird was never seen again, and Mr. Newland said it probably didn’t survive the winter.

But No. 492 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.

The ingredients were there to survive, but to thrive?

Flamingos are a social species that love each other’s company, and No. 492 went off on its own. When a flamingo at the zoo needs medical attention, the keepers will isolate three or four together so the injured bird is more comfortable than it would be alone, Mr. Newland said. Even seeing its own reflection in a mirror can calm a flamingo down.

But great fortune was ahead for No. 492. Soon after it arrived in Texas, it found an unlikely companion: a Caribbean flamingo that, Mr. Newland speculates, may have been blown into the Gulf during a tropical storm. They were seen together as early as 2006 and as recently as 2013.

“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.”

Though they’re often referred to as mates, no one knows the sex of either bird. And Mr. Newland said the fact that they’re roughly the same height suggests they’re likely to be the same sex.

Whether they’re best friends or mates, they weren’t together when Mr. Shepard spotted No. 492 in May. It raised the question: Could the Caribbean flamingo have died? Is No. 492 alone again?

Maybe, but Ms. 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, set to reunite with No. 492 later.

“It’s possible they’re separated and will show up back together again,” she said.

Either way, Mr. Newland said No. 492 could live another 10 to 20 years. Predators include foxes and bobcats, but since flamingos pose little threat to humans and are not considered game birds, No. 492 likely doesn’t have to worry about hunters. Mr. Newland estimated No. 492’s age to be 20, and flamingos in the wild can live into their 40s.

Flamingo escapes from zoos are rare, but not unprecedented. In 1988, a flamingo named Pink Floyd escaped from a zoo in Utah, and was occasionally spotted until it was believed to have died in 2005.

The escape wasn’t the proudest day for the Sedgwick County Zoo, but Mr. Newland said No. 492 would 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.

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