Any creature is entitled to tell his mate occasionally, "Not tonight, dear. I'm not in the mood." But the famed flamingos who live at Hialeah are carrying such abstinence a bit too far.
For them, it's "Not in this decade, dear." The flamingos have not engaged in any amorous activities since 1972, much to the consternation of track officials and the local Audubon Society. Somebody needs to tell the birds about the birds and the bees.
The flamingos have been a celebrated attraction at Hialeah since 1937, when the track imported a flock of them from the Bahamas and gave them a home on the infield lake. It wasn't a bad life. The birds had a lovely habitat and a good diet, and all they had to do to earn their keep was fly for five minutes a day.
After the sixth race each afternoon, the bird's caretaker would paddle a canoe into their midst and stir them up a bit. The flock would take off in flight and circle the track, while music on the public address system accompanied them. Even for hard-core horseplayers who rarely lifted their noses out of the racing form, it was a beautiful spectacle.
Maintaining this tradition was not easy for Hialeah, for flamingos aren't the easiest of creatures to get along with. They're not terribly bright; compared with a flamingo, even a turkey looks like a doctoral candidate at the Sorbonne. And they're so nervous that they would freak out if their caretaker were dressed too brightly when he came to feed them. A genuine trauma could render the birds catatonic for years.
That may have been what happened to Hialeah's flamingos in 1972. The colony's females had laid 165 eggs that were due to hatch in about two weeks. But one morning the birds' caretaker inspected them -- and found that every egg had disappeared without a trace. Evidently, humans stole them; nobody knows for sure. But the flamingos haven't been the same since.
Hialeah officials tried everything to revive the birds' interest in breeding. They gave the flamingos a special high-protein diet that was supposed to boost their mating instincts. They canceled the flamingos' daily flight around the track, hoping to bring more tranquility to the colony. Finally, they called in two amateur bird experts, Joel Abramson, a Miami doctor, and Stewart Stokes, a British businessman.
The experts agreed that the birds must have stopped breeding because of some trauma, probably the disappearance of the eggs. "There have been experiences with wild colonies of flamingos," Abramson said, "where pilots would buzz them and the birds were so upset that they wouldn't breed for years."
Abramson and Stokes mulled over the problem, and finally hit upon the fact that may provide the solution to Hialeah's problems: Flamingos are into group sex.
"Flamingos are very gregarious," Abramson said. "The most successful breeding colony is one in Kenya where they have a couple million birds. When a colony falls to too small a size, the breeding activity drops.
"Flamingos never do anything one at a time. The whole flock engages in courtship flights and does certain dances that seem to have a stimulating effect on their reproductive instincts. They need social stimulation to breed."
What Hialeah should do, Abramson and Stokes recommended, is to import pairs of flamingos that had bred the previous year. They would serve as social directors of sorts for the colony. If they were openly amorous, they would probably get the other birds to join the fun. This may not be the most intimate sort of romance, but it is more practical than playing soft music and trying to get the flamingos to sit down to a candlelight dinner.