Never mind how it might have looked -- giving her neighbors the birds was not what artist Maria Josephy had in mind last spring when she put 52 shocking pink plastic flamingos in the dogwood and beech trees in her Upper Northwest front yard and announced she'd leave them there for all seasons. Larger issues were at stake.

"Bad taste is protected by the First Amendment too," she explains.

Which pretty much sums things up, though Josephy likes to think that the flamingos serve too as a warning against environmental offenses. "If we don't behave ourselves," she says, "we won't have any real birds at all in the next few years. I hope people will look at my flamingos and think about that." This flighty fancy came to Josephy in two stages.

The first was some years ago, when she and her husband, Harold Schoolman, were in Trinidad watching the scarlet ibises return to their nests after their daily excursion to Venezuela, 20 miles away. ("In just a few minutes, the trees changed from green to red," Josephy says. "That strong visual image persisted for a long time.") The second was sometime later, when Josephy read about a Centreville family forced to remove two plastic flamingos because neighbors objected to them.

Image and thought came together when the Washington Project for the Arts invited Josephy to be on its Open Studio tour. She ordered the plastic flamingos by mail -- about $200 worth, from "a goofy catalogue place that also sells rubber chickens."

The glorious gardens -- fore and aft -- of the Josephy/Schoolman residence have long been the joy of their dead-end street, so most of the neighbors haven't cried fowl.

However, the two families ("my dearest friends") who have houses just across the street and therefore see the birds every time they look out are after Josephy "all the time" to cage her birds somewhere. So far they haven't taken any extreme measures -- no scarecrows or birdshot.

In return, Josephy promised to trap all the birds in due time "after I've seen them in the snow."