On September 4, 1979, the students of the University of Wisconsin in Madison emerged from their dorms to attend their first classes of the semester and discovered their campus had been overrun. As they’d slept, someone had filled the quad with 1008 bright pink, plastic flamingoes. The culprits were members of the Pail & Shovel Party that controlled the student government after campaigning on nonsensical promises and irresponsible fun.
The prank went down in history as one of the most delightful on campus, sparking an annual “Fill the Hill” university fundraiser and eventually inspiring Madison to adopt the pink flamingo as its official city bird in 2009.
Why not? The students, after all, were simply participating in a longstanding tradition of lawn ornamentation, one that reaches back at least as far as the temple gardens of Ancient Egypt, and winds on up through the sacred groves of Ancient Greece and Rome. It includes the first manufactured garden gnomes of 19th century Germany, the inexplicable rise of Grandma’s polka dotted backside in the 1980s, and the wide variety of tchotchke in, and occasionally stolen from, my next door neighbor’s front yard, of which I am secretly super jealous. Mostly, I just want an excuse to use the word tchotchke as often as I can because it’s pretty much my favorite word of all time. Go ahead and say it (ˈchäch-kē). I bet it makes you smile.
But when someone mentions lawn ornaments, the image that springs to mind first for most of us is the classic pink flamingo, invented in 1957 by then fairly new Union Products sculptor Dan Featherstone in Leominster, Massachusetts. Featherstone’s flamingoes landed in yards throughout the United States during a time when subdivisions featuring cookie-cutter house designs were popping up at a great rate and homeowners were looking for a way to make their homes stand out.
The plastic pink flamingo joined only six species of the living bird, which gets its pinkish hue from the beta-cerotene in its food. Their population has waxed and waned in the decades since their initial introduction in 1957, but the plastic variety are the only ones you are likely to find these days in the wilds of the United States (or even in the suburbs).
And just like their more natural counterparts, the lawn ornaments tend to flock in large numbers. In fact, there is currently a flock or two living quite happily in my area, roosting each night in the yard of some “lucky” homeowner. The culprits this time are affiliated with my oldest son’s youth group, who will happily take donations in exchange for the nighttime flocking of an unsuspecting friend’s yard. They will also happily sell insurance to anyone not brave enough to host the visiting birds.
My son and I may have had something to do with a few of these migrations. And yes, we have also discovered a flock in our own yard. They’re not so bad really. The birds are quiet. They don’t eat much. And they only stick around to make your next door neighbor (who has otherwise cornered the tchotchke market in your more or less tasteful neighborhood) super jealous for 24 hours before flying off to roost elsewhere.
The Pail & Shovel party would be proud I think. Of course, no matter how many yards get flocked, the official bird of the Greater St. Louis area will always be the Cardinal.