The 700 or so flamingos that inhabit the lake and infield of the Hialeah Racetrack in Florida see a lot of people and horse races in their lifetime, but though these captive birds (their wings are clipped periodically) live and raise families in urban surroundings, theirs is a contrived community. For a look at truly wild flamingos one must travel to some of the loneliest places of the earth where these gaudy birds build their mud cities and rear their young. They are communal birds and flamingo towns are always crowded. In the course of wading shallow lagoons, courting or rising by thousands into the clear tropic skies they create some of the most breath-taking sights in nature.
It was to study and photograph wild flamingos that three American businessmen and their wives traveled down to Bonaire, an island in the Netherlands West Indies off Venezuela. The three were Gardner D. Stout, chairman of the executive committee of the National Audubon Society; Bayard W. Read, retired banker and ardent bird photographer and Walter N. Rothschild, president of Abraham & Straus, the Brooklyn department store.
When they got to Bonaire there were an estimated 4,000 flamingos on the barren salt flats at the southern end of the island. But as always the birds were difficult to approach and the pictures were only fair. However, their disappointment was forgotten when they met a short, round, genial individual who introduced himself as K. Mayer.
K. Mayer was the mechanic for the five cars on the island. It developed that he was an Austrian refugee who wound up on this remote tropic island during World War II and stayed on afterward. K. Mayer became interested in flamingos and was spending most of his money on cameras. Would the visitors like to see some of his flamingo pictures in color?
When the three businessmen saw the pictures they exclaimed as they had when they first saw the actual birds. They wound up buying the pictures and dividing them up for their private collections. A selection of the best of K. Mayer's efforts is reproduced on the following pages.
One reason for Stout's trip was the growing concern of ornithologists and conservationists over the status of the American flamingo, most spectacular of the six species of flamingos that inhabit the world. Their decline in numbers has been steady.
Robert P. Allen, research ornithologist of the National Audubon Society, who has just finished a three-year study of the birds, reports that there are between 20,000 and 25,000 American flamingos left. He estimates their original population at five times this.
Flamingos breed in large colonies averaging 2,000 nests and 4,000 birds They are so wary that if disturbed excessively the entire colony will depart and raise no young at all. There used to be a colony of 6,000 nesting adults on Andros Island in the Bahamas, but during the war pilots took delight in buzzing the colony to see thousands of red birds rise into the air. These and other encroachments were too much for the flamingos and they deserted the colony. Their last nesting on Andros was in 1946. When Allen went there in 1951 he found only 12 birds on the whole island.
Though they have built their towns in wastelands even these birds are now feeling the pressure of man's economic expansion. Their traditional territories are being invaded in the search for oil and the manufacture of salt. Today there are only two places where the American flamingo nests regularly and successfully: on Inagua, the southernmost island of the Bahamas, and along the coast of Yucatan, Mexico.
Allen made 30 field trips to flamingo towns during the three-year study project. Stephen F. Briggs, Milwaukee manufacturer, sponsored the project and went along on some of the trips. For weeks at a time Allen sat in the stifling heat of a blind on the marl flats watching every detail of the strange life of the flamingos in their own home town. He found that everything they do is odd, even to the point of apparently standing on their heads when they eat.