Here’s a little quiz question for you:
Which bird features in my novel Burning Embers, set in Kenya, and my novel Indiscretion, set in Spain?
No doubt the photograph has given away the answer! Yes, it is the flamingo.
In Burning Embers, the heroine Coral takes a balloon ride over the Rift Valley, and as she passes over Lake Baringo she sees beautiful flamingos stalking for food and basking in the sunlight on the shores. Many miles away, in Andalucía, Spain, Alexandra of Indiscretion sees flocks of pink flamingos lying languidly in the sun beside the Guadalete River.
Even now, I can close my eyes and see those splashes of vivid colour in my memories. I grew up in Egypt, where flamingos migrate in the winter, and I now spend each summer in the south of France, not too far from the Camargue, where flamingos nest. But the Andalucían flamingos, which I saw on my travels, are particularly memorable. I visited the Laguna de Fuente de Piedra, a vast natural lake to which flamingos flock each spring to breed. The sight was absolutely beautiful – thousands of birds standing in the water, whose mirror-like surface glinted in the sun and reflected their vibrant colour to create a dazzling display of sunset pink.
My interest in the flamingo goes beyond its eye-catching colour, however. I love its elegance, its sleek lines, as beautifully captured here by Spanish artist Pablo Picasso:
I love the flamingo’s exoticism: it looks like a creature straight out of a fantasy novel. At the end of his poem ‘The Flamingos’, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke described flamingos ‘strid[ing] off one by one into the imaginary’. They are like something out of a dream – something, indeed, out of Alice’s dream of Wonderland; no wonder they spark my imagination.
I think what most fascinates me about the flamingo, though, and inspires me to weave them into my own fiction, is that they are a very romantic bird. When it comes time to breed, both the females and males dance together in unison. See the following BBC footage from Patagonia (from the 2-minute mark):
Once the birds are paired, they build a nest and nurture the egg and then young together; they are usually monogamous for the duration of the breeding season. Each pair has its own love story that summer – romantic, don’t you think?
You may well associate flamingos with passion then, but be warned: if you do not wish to upset a Spaniard, don’t confuse the dance of passion for the bird of passion! In Spanish, the word for flamingo is ‘flamenco’ – which is a word that also means an Andalucían art form. But you always sing and dance flamenco, never flamingo.
Also, despite the fact that way back in history the Romans thought flamingo to be a real delicacy, their meat should certainly be off the menu these days (there have been reports of people eating them recently). Far better, instead, to respect this protected animal and in their honour raise a glass… of Pink Flamingo cocktail, perhaps?