When the iconic Hialeah Park Flamingos mysteriously stopped reproducing, Dennis Testa, vice president of operations at the horse track where the pink-and-black birds live, came up with a plan: faux eggs.
He went to the dollar store, bought multi-colored plastic Easter eggs to use as a mold for plaster eggs that he placed around the flamingos’ island. To his delight, the birds began breeding, earning him a reputation among colleagues as the flamingo love doctor.
While the science behind Testa’s flamingo copulation catalyst has yet to be proven, it’s hard to argue with the results. The famous flamingos — the same flock that rounded the racetrack alongside legends such as Seabiscuit and Citation and filled the opening credits of Miami Vice with a flurry of pink wings — have laid at least 63 eggs as of June 13.
After five years with no chicks, Testa said proudly: “We’re going to have grandchildren.”
That’s not much of a stretch. Testa has spent most of his life at the park starting when he was 7 and his father began working there. He considered the track his 200-acre playground as he grew up. He even got married there.
“Once it’s in your blood you can’t get it out,” said Testa, now 63.
The first flock of Hialeah flamingos was brought to Miami from Cuba in 1934. Another 100 flamingos were imported in 1947. They live on a small island in the center of just over a mile of racetrack, which is punctuated on one side by Hialeah Park’s grandstand — a landmark that Winston Churchill and Harry Truman might recognize from their visits to the track.
The flamingos today are descendants of the birds brought from Cuba, and have reproduced annually with only a few notable breaks in Testa’s memory. One of those, in the ’80s, spawned the idea of a visual stimulant. Back then, Testa used his wife’s L’eggs pantyhose container to mold fake eggs. It worked then, too.
This time around, Testa said that he didn’t use the technique earlier because he only recently observed the flamingos pairing up. Even so, they weren’t producing eggs until the fake ones were unveiled, he said.
No one is quite sure what triggers the flamingos to stop reproducing. Testa said there is “no rhyme or reason for it.”
Jim Dunster, the curator of birds at Zoo Miami, said he thinks it’s possible that the reopening of the racetrack five years ago disrupted the bird’s breeding patterns. Hialeah’s racetrack was closed in 2001 and reopened for quarter horse racing in 2009.
But Testa, who drives to the racetrack infield area in an orange golf cart to check on the birds, said the flamingos did not seem disturbed by the racing.
Safety and feeding patterns also play a part in bird breeding , said Peter Frederick, a research professor of wildlife ecology and conservation at the University of Florida. He said birds need a high protein diet during breeding.
However, Testa said that the flamingos’ diet, including cracked corn and high protein dog food, has remained the same.
Frederick said it is “conceivable” that the fake eggs contributed to the burst of breeding, noting that sometimes birds require signs — noises, for example — that other birds are reproducing before they will reproduce themselves. Dunster agreed, adding that while he has never heard of using a fake egg to encourage breeding, it may have worked in this case.
Testa first noticed this year’s eggs in early June, and has continued finding more eggs throughout the month. Incubation takes 28 days, so Testa expects the baby flamingos to hatch throughout the end of the summer.
Each flamingo lays only one egg per year. On average, the eggs are 3 ½ inches by 2 inches. When chicks hatch, they are fuzzy and grayish-white with very large feet.
“They’re so ugly they’re cute,” Testa said.
It will take about five to six years before these flamingos reach breeding age. They may live as long as 40 to 50 years.
As the new chicks transform from adorable and grayish-white to elegant and pink, the Hialeah property will also be transforming from an old-fashioned racetrack into a more modern entertainment district.
In 2013, the Hialeah Park Casino opened, the first phase in a multimillion dollar project to preserve the historic racetrack and add retail and a resort to the grounds.
But out on the racetrack infield, the flock of flamingos remains squabbling, resting and watching their eggs.
As they stick their long necks into muddy nests, Testa watches from his golf cart.
“Thank God they’re reproducing now,” he said.