“It’s big. It’s pink. It’s a freaking flamingo!”
Flying free for the first time in her life, the 20-year-old Chilean flamingo soared alone over the foothills and rivers of Connecticut. After a lifetime of domesticated inactivity, her breast muscles ached, yet the lost bird forced herself onward.
It was October 1997. Although the flamingo had never migrated before, instinct told her to head for a warmer climate. But she was of a Chilean breed, so while flocks of migratory North American birds flew south, she flew northwest toward what she thought would be the coast. It was the way to a cold death.
Passing over the Appalachian Mountains, the exhausted bird crossed into Canada. Finally, one day in early November, the flamingo saw a gaggle of Canada geese along an inlet of the Ottawa River and prepared to land among them.
Kathy Nihei, the 53-year-old founder of the Ottawa Valley Wild Bird Care Centre, put down the dropper she was using to feed an injured bird and picked up the ringing phone. The caller was Elizabeth Le Geyt, birdwatching columnist at the Ottawa Citizen, and the story she had to tell made Nihei laugh. “Seriously, Elizabeth? A flamingo? Up here?” she said. “We’ll check it out.”
“There’s no way it’s a flamingo,” said Nihei’s colleague Steve Hamlyn. “It’s probably a heron or a snow goose.” Nihei was dining at her parents’ home that night, November 9, so Hamlyn and a volunteer offered to drive over to Shirleys Bay, where the mysterious visitor had been spotted.
When they got there, they found a pink plumed bird with long, stick-thin legs wading through the shallow waters. Hamlyn phoned Nihei. “It’s big. It’s pink. It’s a freaking flamingo!” he exclaimed.
The following morning Nihei, Hamlyn and several volunteers grabbed some nets, borrowed two canoes and paddled their way out onto the bay. It wasn’t long before Nihei spotted the bird’s radiant body standing out clearly against the cloudy, grey day.
“Aren’t you a strange sight,” she said quietly.