Flamingos aren't creatures you expect to see in the wilds of the United States. You might expect to see them in Florida, sure, but if we see them at all, we see them in zoos. Of course, zoos are meant to be escaped from, and one flamingo from a Wichita Zoo did exactly that in 2005.
Now, that same flamingo is living out its life in Texas, which is not exactly Florida. Or Kansas for that matter.
Back in 2003, a flock of adult flamingos from Tanzania arrived at the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita. A year later, the flamingo exhibit at the zoo opened. If the flamingos had arrived as youths, the zoo would have amputated part of the wing responsible for flight before it had fully formed and before the flamingos would have had nerve sensation there to prevent them from flying off on a whim. The idea of doing this to adults, however, was deemed unethical, and so the zoo engaged in a feather clipping each year, basically the equivalent of getting a haircut, Scott Newland, the curator of birds at the zoo, told The New York Times.
It's important to keep an eye on those wings, and zookeepers learned that the hard way following a particularly windy day in June 2005. A visitor reported seeing two flamingos out of their enclosure, and as zoo officials attempted to return the birds, the birds kept getting spooked and flying further away. They ultimately reached a drainage canal on the western side of Wichita, where they remained for a week.
Just as zoo officials believed they could get the birds, named No. 347 and No. 492 for the bands on their legs, under the cover of night, a thunderstorm on July 3 spooked the birds, and by July 4, they were simply gone.
One of those birds, No. 347, flew north and was spotted in Michigan's AuTrain Lake that August but it was never seen again. Newland told The Times the bird likely died later that year as flamingos aren't equipped to deal with the cold, never mind a winter in Michigan.
Texas is the new Tanzania
No. 492, however, wanted a more scenic tour of the States. The long-legged bird has been spotted in Wisconsin, Louisiana and Texas over the years.
It seems to prefer Texas, however, which isn't a huge surprise.
"As long as they have these shallow, salty types of wetlands they can be pretty resilient," Felicity Arengo, a flamingo expert at the American Museum of Natural History, explained to The Times.
It also helps that No. 492 has a friend, an unidentified a Caribbean flamingo that may have flown off course during a storm.
"Even though they're two different species, they are enough alike that they would have been more than happy to see each other," Newland said. "They're two lonely birds in kind of a foreign habitat. They're not supposed to be there, so they have stayed together because there's a bond."
The two birds were last reported seen together in 2013, so it's possible the Caribbean flamingo has gone to another location, or even died.
Meanwhile, No. 492 is still surprising Texas residents — like employees of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, who reported seeing No. 492 in Lavaca Bay earlier this month.
No. 492 could go on popping up in bird sightings for a while, too. According to Newland, flamingos can live into their 40s, and No. 492 is only in its 20s.