flam8Heraldic Birds of the TCI

Story and Photos by Richard W. Ground

Flamingos are curious and contradictory birds: ungainly and elegant; familiar yet rare; mysterious and commonplace. In Alice in Wonderland, the formidable Red Queen used them as croquet mallets, although Alice had trouble managing hers. In the crest of the Turks & Caicos Islands, they stand on either side of the shield as heraldic supporters, long-legged and awkward in such an improbable setting.

When Tenniel came to illustrate Alice in Wonderland he was able to draw a remarkably accurate likeness of this exotic bird, because even then he would have had access to them in zoos. Indeed, because flamingos flourish in captivity we tend to be all too familiar with them, and perhaps even to take them for granted. But to the ancients they were birds of myth and mystery, and were the inspiration for the legendary Phoenix, an immortal bird which was consumed by magical fire and rose again from its own ashes. We get a distant echo of that in the scientific name for the genus Phoenicopterus–“Phoenix feathered.”

There are five species of flamingo in the world. The West Indian (or Greater) Flamingo belongs to a wide-spread species Phoenicopterus ruber which also occurs in North Africa and Southern Europe. However, the American variety is much redder in colour than its trans-atlantic cousins. It is the most spectacular of flamingo species, and because of that is the one most favoured by zoos.

Despite their apparent awkwardness, flamingos are perfectly adapted to their particular niche in life. Their long legs and necks enable them to inhabit deeper water than any other wading birds, but it is their peculiar feeding technique which really makes them unique. They feed on minute aquatic organisms, which they sieve out of the mud by filtering it through their unusual, upside-down beaks. These beaks contain rows of bristles, called lamellae, through which they strain the water. They then swallow their tiny catch without lifting their heads–itself a minor gravity-defying feat.

Although flamingos are slow breeders–often not reaching reproductive maturity until they are six years old and usually only laying one egg a year–if left to themselves they can, over time, build up immense numbers. This is largely because they thrive in the baking reaches of saline tropical marshes. In such an inhospitable and inaccessible habitat, land based predators cannot get at them.

Except, that is, for the most formidable predator of all–man. Over the years, flamingos have been persecuted for their feathers and for meat, and their eggs have been highly prized as a food source. One of the earliest European visitors to the Caicos Islands, John White on his way to Virginia in July 1587, recorded that his men hunted “Swanees” and caught a great number of them. This was no doubt typical of the time, when seafarers were desperate for any fresh supplies. But the inevitable effect was that, by the mid-part of this century, the population of flamingos in the West Indies was severely depleted and they seemed doomed to extinction.

flyingHowever, like its mythical namesake the Phoenix, the West Indian Flamingo has made a remarkable come-back. This has been largely due to legal protection of both it and its habitats. The best example of this is the breeding flock on Inagua in the Bahamas. When naturalist Gilbert Klingel visited them in the 1940s he found only 3,000 birds. Even then he thought that the sight of flamingos taking off was one of the most wonderful wildlife spectacles he had ever witnessed. Since the early 1960s, that flock has been protected by the Bahamas National Trust in a reserve patrolled by wardens. It is now reported to number 60,000 birds!

There is a breeding flock nearer to home, in North Caicos. There, perhaps as many as 1,000 birds live in Pumpkin Bluff Pond (although it is now designated simply as “Flamingo Pond” on the tourist maps.) They can be seen from the road and it is a wonderful sight, but they usually tend to be far out in the marshy and inaccessible reaches of the lagoon, and you cannot get a close look at them. The site is a protected nature reserve and the birds themselves enjoy legal protection: under the Wild Birds Protection Ordinance anyone harming them or their eggs can face up to six months in prison or a hefty fine.

You do not have to go to North Caicos, however, to see flamingos.Flamingos in Grand Turk Small, wandering flocks can turn up almost anywhere in the Turks & Caicos, and it seems that in recent years they are becoming larger and more frequent. A large flock of over 80 birds took up residence on Grand Turk in late 1998, where they stayed until the late summer of 1999. They could be seen regularly on the tidal flats at the north end of the island, around the mouth of North Creek. Over time they ventured into town, where the warm, highly saline water of the old salt ponds provides an ideal environment for them. The Town Salina in Cockburn Town, Grand Turk, is an unlikely wildlife habitat, being surrounded by people, houses and roads, but in fact it throngs with bird life of all kinds, attracted to the life swarming in its shallow waters. There the flamingos joined the pelicans and herons, feeding peacefully or standing immobile with their heads tucked away under their wings.

I live on the west coast of Grand Turk, and many evenings about sunset the whole flock would fly past my verandah, sometimes honking softly to themselves like geese, at other times absolutely silent, the stillness only broken by the sound of their huge wings. Where they were going on these nocturnal excursions–whether to roost in the Town Salina, or in South Creek or out on one of the Cays–I never found out. But for a while they were regular and predictable, and we could guarantee surprising and delighting visitors with the spectacle.

This flock was largely composed of young birds. With one or two exceptions they had not yet acquired the bright red plumage of the adult, but were a pinkish white. They must have originated from one of the breeding flocks, either on Inagua or in North Caicos, foraging far and wide throughout the region until they became old enough to return home and settle down to raise a family of their own. While they stopped over on Grand Turk they would turn up in the oddest places–they could be seen standing beside the road, and I once found one in an old cattle well at North Wells.

Eventually they went away–not all at once, but gradually, drifting off in ones and twos, until one morning there were none left and Grand Turk was a poorer place without them. But as long as there are protected strongholds in which flamingos can breed and prosper, and as long as they are respected and left well alone when they visit, they will always return. Indeed, by way of a postscript, at the time of writing a small group has turned up in back of the Town Salina. There are not so many of them, but they seem redder and older, and they are quite at home among the ruined walls of the old salt ponds.

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Gary James at Provo Pictures (www.provopictures.com) used a drone to photograph this bird’s-eye view of Dragon Cay off Middle Caicos. It perfectly captures the myriad of colors and textures that make God’s works of art in nature so captivating.

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