Why the Plastic Flamingo is the Official Bird of Madison, Wisconsin

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Most states have an official state bird, but it's less common for a city to declare an official bird. About 28 American cities have proclaimed a fowl of choice: Chicago’s is the peregrine falcon and Key West, Florida’s is the chicken—and then there’s Madison, Wisconsin.

In 2009, Madison declared the pink flamingo its official bird—the plastic pink flamingo. The flamingo obviously isn’t native to Wisconsin, and the inventor of the plastic yard flamingo was from Massachusetts, not the Badger State.

So, what gives? In 1979, a few members of the student government at the University of Wisconsin-Madison decided to prank the dean. The group, known as the Pail & Shovel Party, was already known for their tricks. They were responsible for the replica of the Statue of Liberty stuck in Lake Mendota the previous year. They also threw a $10,000 toga party for the student body—approved by John Belushi himself—and purchased toys to give to students waiting in long lines at class registration.

This time, they planned a prank that would also be the perfect “Welcome Back” message to students. On the first day of the fall semester, they decorated the lawn near the dean's office with exactly 1008 of the kitschy birds. 

In honor of the frivolous but historic flamingo incident, local newspaper columnist Doug Moe lobbied in 2009 to have the toy named the official bird of the city. "I mean, Madison is a city with five official songs," he wrote. "Our council once debated renaming Bassett Street Ho Chi Minh Trail. Our manhole covers are sewer access covers. Through it all, we've always managed to laugh at ourselves. So what better symbol than the plastic pink flamingo?"

The City Council voted in favor of the status, 15-4. “If you don't have a little fun, [life]'s not worth living,” Councilwoman Marsha Rummel said.

Today, the legacy lives on in more than just the flamingo’s status as the official bird of the city: One of the infamous birds has been archived at the Wisconsin Historical Society.