ST. PETERSBURG — It has come down to Lucy and George.
These feathery friends are the last two standing from the original flock of 17 flamingos that came to roost at Sunken Gardens in 1956. And the truth is they’re not exactly spring chickens.
“They’re really on borrowed time, frankly,” said Bill O’Grady, Sunken Gardens’ supervisor and horticulturist. “At their expiration date.”
So now the attraction is working to restock the flock of the trademark pink birds that helped make Sunken Gardens a hit among old Florida roadside attractions and draw tourists to its famed gardens.
A fundraising effort called Flamingos Forever has been underway for about 18 months to buy another flock because, well, flamingos actually don’t last forever. “If you get 50 years out of them you’re doing good,” O’Grady said, and his birds are close to 60.
The group, headed by volunteers Robin Reed and Leslie Larmon, has helped raise about $44,000 of the $60,000 needed to buy 20 birds from Florida breeders, O’Grady said. The birds cost $3,000 each when purchased as a flock.
People who buy them individually or only a few for their backyard ponds or whatever other reason pay about $5,000 apiece, he said, in part to discourage that practice and to make sure the birds are cared for properly.
O’Grady said the birds like to live in groups and are very mellow.
Ideally, he said, he would like a range of ages to show how they change from white hatchlings to grayish adolescents and then to full-color pink birds as adults at age 3, “but I can’t be too fussy,” he said.
Sunken Gardens has Chilean flamingos, which O’Grady said are a softer pink than the familiar and shockingly pink Caribbean flamingos in Hialeah.
The city of St. Petersburg, which bought Sunken Gardens in 1999 from the Turner family, has agreed to build a larger shelter area for the birds, which O’Grady said could cost $10,000 to $15,000. The new area, designed according to specifications of the American Zoological Association, will provide more room for the birds to nest, bathing ponds and sand where they can play.
O’Grady said flamingos were one of the original Florida roadside attractions, “and part of what made roadside attractions.” He has assembled his own collection of flamingo memorabilia and old gift shop items he hopes put into a museum complementing the birds and their shelter.
One of the city’s oldest attractions, Sunken Gardens was created in a sinkhole at 1825 Fourth Ave. N. that George Turner Sr. bought in 1903 and drained. As Turner, a horticulturist, planted fruits, vegetables and later exotic plants, it became a popular strolling spot for local residents.
In the 1920s, he added a gift shop and by 1935 Sunken Gardens had become world famous. It was among hundreds of attractions and gift shops that dotted Florida highways in an era when large numbers of tourists motored into the state, including the now-closed London Wax Museum in St. Pete Beach and Tiki Gardens in Indian Shores.
At one time, the 4-acre attraction boasted a capybara (the world’s largest rodent), alligator wrestling, more than 400 birds and the “The World’s Largest Gift Shop,” along with its still-treasured botanical gardens with more than 50,000 plants, walking paths and ponds. The gardens still feature a collection of birds, including laughing kookaburras, Amazon parrots, cockatiels, macaws and, of course, two flamingos.
O’Grady said the flamingo fundraising began innocently when he mentioned the dwindling flock while meeting with members of the Historic Old Northeast Homeowners Association. “All of a sudden, they started sending me checks,” he said. “I wasn’t trying to start a fundraiser.”
No matter, as the checks came in, Reed and Larmon started the nonprofit Flamingos Forever group after the city told O’Grady he wasn’t allowed to collect money for a city operation. The women also have created a Flamingos Forever Facebook page with historical and other information about the birds and the attraction.
To contribute, contact or send donations to Sunken Gardens, Flamingos Forever Fund, 1825 Fourth St. N., St. Petersburg, 33704. Contributions qualify as tax-exempt, and donors even may purchase naming rights to a flamingo with a contribution of $3,000 or more.