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Sunken Gardens hopes to renew its flock of pink flamingos

George, front, and Lucy are the last surviving pink flamingos at Sunken Gardens in St. Petersburg. A current fundraising effort would restore the flock to more than 20. The pair are shown at the gardens on Sept. 16.
Published Oct. 23, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG

A postcard picturing Sunken Gardens flamingos sent "Greetings from St. Petersburg Florida." A snow globe encasing two flamingos in a swirl of white particles served as one visitor's permanent reminder of the botanical garden and its exotic pink residents. Vintage plates, mugs, statues and pennants featuring flamingos have been Sunken Gardens' calling card for decades.

Though the gardens, at 1825 Fourth St. N, opened to the public in the 1920s, its flock of 17 flamingos didn't arrive until the mid 1950s. The elegant pink creatures have been synonymous with the city's oldest tourist attraction, and St. Petersburg, itself ever since.

But whereas flamingo snow globes are still available on eBay for $21.99, the actual birds don't last forever. Sunken Gardens is down to its last two flamingos.

"Little by little they've reached their expiration date," said Bill O'Grady, supervisor of the city-owned 4-acre garden. "Seeing just two for me is sad and it's not good to keep them by themselves. Flamingos are very gregarious and they are used to being in huge flocks."

Two Sunken Garden volunteers, Leslie Larmon and Robin Reed, felt the same way and started a nonprofit quest called Flamingos Forever about a year ago to replenish the flock. With $30,000 raised, it's now about halfway to what's needed to purchase 20 flamingos. Much of it has come from St. Petersburg businesses.

It's best to acquire flamingos in groups of 20 or more, because they are most likely to mate when they feel the security of living in a large flock. For that reason, most breeders will only sell them in lots of at least 20.

This stipulation usually keeps roadside "farms" that aren't well funded and supervised from gaining access to flamingos. But it also creates a daunting quest for Sunken Gardens to finance a new flock.

"We went to the city. They said, 'We cannot spend that kind of money on birds in today's economy,' " O'Grady said. "They didn't think that was going to fly."

(Flamingos, by the way, can fly, but they usually get their wings clipped in captivity.)

The city will finance new housing for the larger flock. The project is still being designed but is expected to cost more than $20,000.

The criteria for housing flamingos has changed quite a bit since Sunken Gardens founders George and Lucy Turner built a shelter for the birds in the 1950s. The two remaining birds are named George and Lucy in their honor.

Anyone who donates $3,000 buys naming rights of a new bird. The Historic Old Northeast Neighborhood Association donated that much and will name its bird HONNA.

Marion's Gifts & Clothing owner Marion Mitchell has organized two fundraisers with other Fourth Street businesses that garnered $14,000 for the cause.

"As a little girl I lived in upstate New York and we would come to St. Petersburg at Christmastime," she said. "We would stay on Fourth Street and we went to Sunken Gardens every time we came. The flamingos to me are part of my youth and such good memories."

Though she later teased her parents for always opting for the heated pool at the Lewis Motel over the actual Gulf of Mexico, she thought Sunken Gardens was better than any beach.

"I was so surprised to hear there were only two flamingos left," Mitchell said. For one fundraiser, she recruited local artists to create paintings of flamingos, or "old Florida," and a percentage of the sales went to Flamingos Forever. At another event, local businesses such as Shep's Food Mart decorated plastic flamingos and they were raffled off.

"I was raised in St. Pete," said Larmon, who helped start Flamingos Forever. "Sunken Gardens stands for the old Florida attractions. It's a great family place. The school kids love it."

There's a collection box at Sunken Gardens where locals and tourists have donated everything from pennies to large bills.

"It's really heartening to see people who have never been here before, people from another country, contribute," O'Grady said.

The soonest the birds could be in place with new housing is in the spring, he said.

Flamingos lay one egg a year. If the fundraising drive succeeds, Sunken Gardens visitors would have a whole new experience once a baby boom started.

Both parents build a volcano-shaped nest out of mud and take turns incubating the egg. Once the babies are born, they cluster together in a group called a creche.

"I think George and Lucy will be much happier when they have some company," O'Grady said.

They've been a lonely duo for about three years since No 54 died. Most birds were called by the number written on their leg bands. But that doesn't mean they were treated like numbers.

"Fifty-four was a real sweetie. He would always preen my moustache and eyebrows," O'Grady said.

Sunken Gardens hasn't tried the tactic that one zoo in Germany uses, O'Grady said. It places mirrors around its flamingo pen so the small number of birds feel they are in a bigger flock.

Contact Katherine Snow Smith at (727) 893-8785. Follow @snowsmith.

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