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3 september 2016

I've never seen a flamingo in the wild – this must be the fortieth time I've started a review of an animal book by noting I've never seen one in the wild – and any memories I may have of flamingos in zoos are overwritten or prompted by the common sight of flamingos in nature documentaries, cramming some water feature with an overplus of pink. Like many middle Americans, my primary association with flamingos is those tacky (and therefore retro-hip) items you poke into your front lawn.

American involvement with the flamingo is so bound up in those plastic lawn ornaments that Caitlin Kight devotes an entire chapter of Flamingo to them. Created by the late Don Featherstone in 1957, pink plastic flamingoes have maintained a solid brand identification with his original design for six decades (though you can obviously buy any number of knockoffs). Kight likes them for the same reason Featherstone liked them and for the reason their many admirers, ironic and non-ironic, like them: they are fun. Originally designed to tap into the "pizzazzy" aspects of Florida vacations (117) and bring them back home to Dayton or Utica, the flamingoes have been enlisted in neighborhood bonding and charity work. Thanks to John Waters and Divine, they are camp icons, and they seem to be a common language spoken by both the most conformist and the most unbuttoned elements of American culture.

Kight is excellent on the ecology and natural history of the flamingo. She clearly distinguishes among six species that inhabit far-flung reaches of Africa, Asia, mediterranean Europe, the Caribbean, and South America. Flamingos need salty wetlands to feed and breed in, and so stick close to shorelines or brackish inland playas. They are nomadic rather than migratory, covering large territories but not establishing a true seasonal alteration between summer and winter grounds. They're powerful flyers, though their more typical poses (perched on one leg, or with heads upside down looking for food) are even more ungainly than you'd think. And somewhat paradoxically, the more populous species at the moment are somewhat more endangered, because their breeding grounds are more restricted and more at risk for habitat loss.

Flamingo is a thinner book than most Reaktion Animal volumes, because cultural appropriations of the flamingo are sparse. Despite human fascination with them, which has led to their keeping in menageries and zoos, and sometimes exploiting them for feathers or tongues or breast meat, flamingoes don't share optimal habitats with humans. (In another paradox, road development to facilitate flamingo ecotourism is one of the gravest dangers to their salty, remote habitats.) Much of the cultural material Kight comments on actually has to do with misidentifications of flamingos, which have often been confused with cranes, storks, and the mythical phoenix. (Their genus name is Phoenicopterus.)

Kight, Caitlin R. Flamingo. London: Reaktion, 2015.