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A Flamingo Flies the Coop to Fame

An escapee named Pink Floyd hangs out near the Great Salt Lake in Utah. He's easy to spot, being four feet tall and bright pink. But nobody has ever managed to catch him. Floyd has become a well-known sight near the shores of the lake in winter.

Flamingos usually live in Africa, southern Europe, South America, and the southern part of North America. Caribbean flamingos sometimes travel as far north as Florida. Otherwise, flamingos in the United States are brought from other countries and live in zoos. Not many flamingos live in the wild in the United States. Just the few like Floyd who have gotten away from a zoo or aviary (a place that keeps lots of birds).

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Floyd is a Chilean flamingo. This type, or species, lives in Chile, Bolivia, and Peru in South America. He came to Utah to stay at the Tracy Aviary in Salt Lake City in 1985. In order to keep birds in aviaries and zoos, their wings are clipped or trimmed so they can't fly away, explains Scott Barton, curator at the aviary. Somehow, Floyd's wings didn't get clipped, and in 1988 he flew out of the aviary and soon turned up at the Great Salt Lake.

Now he wades in the shallows near flocks of sea gulls, eating brine shrimp and posing for tourists. Mr. Barton keeps an eye on him, stopping by the lake a few times every year to see how he's doing. But no one knows how to catch him without injuring him, so it's best to just leave him there. He seems to be doing quite well, and gets plenty of food.

Flamingos eat in the same way as some whales, says Barton. They have special strainers at the sides of their bills. They dip their large, curved bills into the lake to get a mouthful of water, mud, plants, and sea creatures. Then they use their tongues to push the water and mud out through the strainers. This leaves just the food in their mouths.

Many of the creatures they eat have a coloring, or pigment, like that found in carrots. This is what gives them their pink color. Without pigment from their food, flamingo feathers would be white. Floyd's bright-pink color comes from the coloring in the shrimp he eats. His pink color shows he is eating well and is healthy.

The climate at the Great Salt Lake agrees with Floyd. It is similar to the climate found in Chile, with salty lakes, cold winters, and hot summers. Some Chilean flamingos migrate by flying to mountain lakes in the summer and warmer coastal areas in the winter. Floyd disappears from the lake every spring and returns at the beginning of winter. But no one knows where he goes in the summer.

Someone spotted him near an irrigation canal about 30 miles south of the lake one summer, Barton says. And he has been spotted north of the lake as well. So he may not be going very far. But no one has discovered if he has a usual summer hangout.

No flamingo friends

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Chilean flamingos usually travel only 50 to 100 miles. And they fly in large groups. Floyd doesn't have any other flamingos to hang out with. He is often seen with his sea gull friends at the lake. He also has been spotted in the fall flying with a flock of tundra swans coming in from northern Canada. But no one knows if he joined the flock farther north or met them as they came near the lake.

Flamingos are very social birds. They eat in groups, nest in groups, and travel in groups. This may be why Floyd likes to stay near the sea gulls at the lake or to fly with a traveling flock of swans.

Some people have suggested that other flamingos be brought to the lake to keep him company. That's not a good idea, says Barton. First of all, it's illegal. Bringing a new species into an area can upset the balance of nature. He points out how starlings and English sparrows were brought into the US and overwhelmed the local bird populations. So in this case, it's not wise to fool with nature.

Just fine, thank you

Floyd seems to be doing well enough on his own. Coyotes and bobcats sometimes hunt flamingos. And a large eagle could carry one off. But nothing ever seems to threaten Floyd. Because he stays out in shallow water, standing on his long, skinny legs, it would be hard for an animal to reach him before he could fly away. And the hunting creatures around the Great Salt Lake may not know what to make of Floyd. After all, they've never seen a bird this big and pink before.

The local sea gulls don't mind letting him hang around, and Floyd gets a lot of visitors. Doug Cronin is a maintenance worker at Saltair Resort, a concert and dance hall on the shore of the lake. "I see Floyd out here every day," he says. "And almost every day I notice people coming out to see Floyd. A lot of them have cameras, some with really long telephoto lenses." And the word spreads.

Recently, a family from Kansas came out to see Floyd after reading about him in a newspaper while visiting Salt Lake City. So Floyd is becoming a local celebrity. And since flamingos often live for 30 or more years, Pink Floyd may be around for a long time to come.

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