This Saturday Hialeah holds its most famous race, the Flamingo Stakes, named after the colony of flamingos that resides on a small island in the track's infield. While horseplayers are getting ready for action, the same cannot be said of the birds. Imported to Hialeah from Cuba in the 1920s, the flamingos multiplied, reaching a peak population of more than 600 a decade ago. But no flamingos have been born since 1972, and male and female birds have lately shown virtually no interest in each other. As a result, the flock has dwindled to barely 400, prompting Angelo Testa, Hialeah's director of operations and resident birdman, to say, "I'm very much concerned. The flamingos are synonymous with Hialeah, and since you can't barter or trade for more birds under the endangered-species laws, we could lose them."
Testa thinks he knows what disrupted the flamingos' breeding habits. By tradition, Hialeah's winter meeting ran from January to early March, ending just in time for the flamingos' four-week mating season. But in 1972, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that Hialeah had to swap dates with Gulfstream, with the result that every other year Hialeah's meeting now runs from March through May. Pity the poor flamingos. Suddenly their March mating season was being intruded upon by hundreds of galloping horses and thousands of screaming fans, a distraction that apparently put them very much out of the mood.
Testa has tried everything. He has mined the flamingos' island with artificial eggs, hoping they would get the message. He has constructed clay replicas of the cone-shaped mounds of earth that flamingos use as nests. On the advice of curators of the Indianapolis and St. Louis zoos, where flamingos were found to be more amorous after warm drizzles, he set up a sprinkler system and showered the island. After the artificial rain subsided, the males strutted, honked and raised their wings in a mating dance and constructed nests. Alas, not an egg was laid. Testa vows to struggle on, but he's not optimistic, warning that unless the racing commission restores Hialeah's traditional dates, the result for the flamingos could be "a complete disaster."
Maryland fishermen and biologists are disturbed by the dramatic decline of fish in Chesapeake Bay, the most productive estuary in the world. Individual fish populations have their ups and downs, but four different species that spawn in Maryland waters—striped bass, yellow perch, river herring and shad—have all slumped in numbers in recent years. For example, the shad catch plummeted from one million pounds in 1972 to 47,000 pounds in 1979 before the state imposed a fishing ban last year that's still in effect. More ominously, biologists who regularly make beach seine surveys in the summer to determine the success of the previous spring's spawning netted only 28 juvenile shad in the last two years. Previously they had caught hundreds each season. Various suggestions have been made to explain the declines, such as contamination by chemicals or heavy metals, but now Dr. Joseph Mihursky, professor of ecology at the University of Maryland's Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, thinks he may have a clue, at least as far as striped bass in the Potomac River are concerned. This species is of particular concern because its numbers have dropped elsewhere on the East Coast and in California in recent years.
According to Mihursky, who headed a team of researchers, the key to having a super crop of baby striped bass—what biologists call a "dominant year-class"—has nothing at all to do with the number of adults that spawn. Instead, a dominant year-class of baby bass results if an abundance of food is available when the infant fish first begin to feed on their own. The food they eat are microscopic organisms called zooplankton that in turn devour detritus. Thus the abundance of zooplankton depends on the amount of dead leaf and grass litter that washes into the Potomac from adjacent lands and marshes.
By correlating beach seine and weather records for 25 years, Mihursky calculates that the success of a striped bass year-class in the Potomac is dependent on below-average winter temperatures starting in December and an above-average runoff for a five-day period the following April. "If there is cold weather starting in December, the leaf and grass litter doesn't rot out, but is frozen in place," he explains. "Then the scour in April washes it into the river. This allows the zooplankton population to start building, and they in turn become food for the larval bass at the right time. We haven't had those two weather conditions in the Potomac since 1970, and that's when we had our last big year-class."
Mihursky adds, "If we have those two weather conditions, and we still don't get a big year-class, then we should focus on contaminants."
P.A. announcer Kevin Slaten of the St. Louis Steamers of the Major Indoor Soccer League is known for his flamboyant delivery and for being a "homer." Slaten exuberantly pours it on as he introduces the Steamer players, each of whom dramatically emerges from a heavy cloud of vapor as his name is called, and when a Steamer scores, Slaten gets so carried away—and the fans with him—that the referee has to wait for the crowd to quiet down before allowing play to resume.