ST. PETERSBURG – For years George and Lucy have been empty nesters at Sunken Gardens, but this week the elderly birds were in for a surprise when a young flock of 20 Chilean flamingos moved in.
“They were a little hesitant, frankly, to share,” said Bill O’Grady, supervisor and horticulturist at Sunken Gardens. “They felt, not defensive, but maybe protective of their place.”
George and Lucy, after all, have been on exhibit since 1956, members of the original 17-bird flock that called the historic botanical garden home. During the last three years locals have been urging city officials to buy more flamingos, and raising money for the project. In August the city agreed to acquire a nighttime enclosure for the new flock — a $30,000 project — and, in January, Sunken Gardens reached an agreement with the San Antonio Zoo to purchase the 20 birds.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman held a news conference to debut the new flock Thursday, calling it a special day in the city.
“I’ve got to say with our flamingos back, Sunken Gardens clearly has a leg up on other area attractions,” he said.
Kriseman, Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin and City Council member Jim Kennedy, who donned a plush flamingo hat, cut a pink ribbon to unveil the new enclosure before the birds were coaxed out into the open.
Last week O’Grady went to San Antonio, Texas, to bond with the birds so they would be familiar with him before the 1,200-mile drive to St. Petersburg. He went back Tuesday morning to see them off, along with those at the zoo who raised the birds — some less than 1 year old — from eggs.
On Wednesday afternoon the flamingos arrived in Florida, where they have been settling into their new habitat and getting to know their neighbors, George and Lucy.
The older birds still are adjusting to the change, O’Grady said. George, tagged number 59, has taken to displaying his dominance over the new sprightly birds, standing on an overturned pot in the nighttime enclosure to appear taller and spreading his wings.
Two of the younger males, however, are taller and “kind of helped 59 get down off of his high horse,” O’Grady said.
Lucy has not shied away from displaying some power moves; handlers have seen her nipping at the younger birds.
“But we’ve had a talk about that,” O’Grady said.
Overall, however, the aging flamingos are adjusting. The birds typically live in large flocks, and O’Grady said all of them — both young and old — soon will learn to thrive together.
“They’ll work it out,” he said. “They’re not aggressive birds.”
The effort to bring new birds to Sunken Gardens, 1825 4th St. N, St., was largely a citizen-driven campaign that began three years ago when O’Grady lamented to members of the Historic Old Northeast Homeowners Association how the previously vast flock had dwindled. After that the nonprofit “Flamingos Forever” was formed by volunteers Robin Reed and Leslie Larmon.
Flamingos Forever has raised thousands of dollars to buy the new flock, which O’Grady said cost more than $50,000.
During the last decade, the city has faced economic hardships, which meant purchasing a new flock that would run $2,000 to $4,000 a bird wasn’t a priority, Reed said Thursday.
“No one even wanted to hear the word ‘flamingo’,” she said.
Fundraising and the city-built nighttime enclosure, however, made it possible to bring the birds back — and secure a domestic breeder, which are few and far between. Having achieved its goal, Flamingos Forever is changing its name to Sunken Gardens Forever and will continue to work to benefit the historic garden, Reed said.
From noon to 4 p.m. on Sunday, May 1, Sunken Gardens will host a Flamingo Festival to welcome the birds. Kriseman also named May “Sunken Gardens Forever Appreciation Month” in St. Petersburg.
“With a lifespan that can surpass 50 years,” the mayor said. “They will be a welcome addition to Sunken Gardens for decades to come.”