Mysteriously, the Hialeah Park Flamingos have stopped reproducing. One man is trying to figure out why.
Standing in the horse paddock at Hialeah Park Race Track, Dennis Testa is looking a tad worried. The famed pink flamingos of South Florida — stars of the track for 80 years — have stopped producing offspring. On their private island in the racetrack’s infield lake, there are no volcano-shaped nests of new flamingo eggs. Have the flamingos forgotten their mating ritual? Gotten peeved at the quarter horses racing on the oval track? Testa isn’t sure. “I saw a couple of the flamingos out there having fun this morning, but no eggs in five years,” he says, perplexed. It’s the breeding season. He needs to find a love potion soon.
You know about Hialeah Park’s pink flamingos, right? They opened the hit TV show Miami Vice and did star turns in films such as The Champ. They are the iconic symbol of the Florida Lottery. They have been flying at Hialeah Park since 1934, when track owner Joseph Widener imported 20 Caribbean flamingos from Cuba. That flock flew back home, but Widener clipped the wings of the next group, and the flamingos — now the second and third generation, 285 of them — stay willingly, no clipped wings needed. Their island in Hialeah, not far from Miami International Airport, is a National Audubon Sanctuary.
“Why would they fly away?” chuckles Testa, 63. “They own their own island, nobody bothers them, and they get fed every day.” (It’s the beta-carotene in their high-protein diet that makes them vivid pink, he says.) The flamingos have the run of the 200-acre park, sharing it with mallards, seagulls and Cooper’s hawks, as well as quarter horses during the racing season (November to February). Every race day, as if on cue, the flamingos take to the air, executing figure eights for the grandstand crowd, flashing the black plumage on the underside of their pink wings. Peter Aiello, the 28-year-old track announcer, gets a kick out of their showmanship. “The more people in the grandstand, the more of a show the flamingos put on,” Aiello says.
In the 1920s, Hialeah Park was touted as the world’s most beautiful racecourse. Its terraces mimicked Monte Carlo’s casinos; the horse tunnel was based on England’s Epsom Downs Racecourse; the walking ring on France’s Longchamp. Churchill, Truman, Johnson, Kennedy, Elizabeth Taylor and Jackie Onassis all came to watch the races. Seabiscuit, the Depression-era champion, debuted at the park. Triple Crown winner Citation raced here, as did Seattle Slew.
Dennis Testa arrived at Hialeah Park in 1958 when his father, Angelo, became superintendent. They lived on the property. “I was driving tractors on the track from age 10,” he says. “When I was little, I would join Julius Barbour, the bird man, and feed the flamingos.” The younger Testa became their protector, racing out of bed at night if the flamingos started making a racket because of intruders. For him, the majestic birds — some nearly 5 feet tall — are more than pets. “They are part of the history of Hialeah Park,” he says.
Once before, the flamingos lost their lust for love. For much of the ’70s, after thoroughbreds started racing during mating season, the flamingos went on a love strike. “My dad and I did a lot of soul-searching,” Testa says. “We used to have 400, 450 birds laying 50 to 60 eggs. What happened?”
Part of it, they realized, was not enough water for the flamingos to build their mud nests. “So we took water and dribbled it around the mounds. Dad got a Rain Bird sprinkler and I went up a palm tree to attach it,” he says. To prod the flamingos’ memories, he and his dad put fake eggs on the island too. “The truth is we used L’eggs [hosiery containers]. They were almost the same size as the flamingo eggs. My dad and I used plaster of paris and sanded them down. My mom thought we were crazy, but it worked.”
In 1981, the flamingos started producing again. But Testa worried about the future. “What if a natural disaster happened?” he asks. At the time, they were the only flamingos breeding in the U.S. With help from Miami’s zoo and SeaWorld, he set up the Hialeah Park Flamingo Consortium, shipping out some of their precious pinks to zoos as backup. “If there is a disaster, I get half of the original flamingos back and half of the babies.”
Now the flamingos are amorously challenged again. Testa, vice president of operations, has been busy working with owner John Brunetti to restore the grandstand, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and to construct the new Hialeah Park Casino. But five years have gone by with no babies. “They are pairing up. They’re courting,” Testa says. But no eggs. “I’ve got to get on eBay and get some L’eggs stockings. Got to get my sprinkler out. I’ll do that tonight,” he says, grinning mischievously. “It worked before.”
Cathy Booth Thomas is a 22-year veteran of Time Magazine, where she was bureau chief in Los Angeles, Miami and Rome.