Pink flamingos in the Maximo River

You are late –said Loidy—the boys are already gone. They should be back in an hour.

No one would think this is in Cuba. There is dry, cracked, arid land resulting from low tides. Square kilometers of mud and dead logs that used to be a forest. The ground is low here, every time the sea level raisesone tenth only, salt water walks in hundreds of meters from the coast. Over there, there is a skull of a cow half buried, and here is a bird egg that never cracked a chick out. However, an extraordinary event will take place in a few minutes, in the middle of this dead environment–apocalyptic and post nuclear.

Maximo River Mouth Wildlife Reserve is located to the north of Camaguey province. In Cuba it is not known this place shelters the largest number of pink flamingos in the world. “They come from Bahamas and Florida”—said Fefo. They come here because they are close to fresh water and low and muddy bottoms, which are ideal elements for nesting”.

Nests are some sort of mud columns they build from the bottom with their legs. “The funniest thing is that by using that same mud they manage to make the grounds of the ‘tower’ to be solid, while the upper part –where eggs will be laid—is soft like a mattress. They are so solid you can even step on them. Mother Nature is wise, boy. It surprises me every day”.

José Concepción Morales, Fefo, was born 70 years ago in a town by the name of Minas. He is the son of poor farmers. He became a teacher with the Revolution and taught biology lessons in a pre-university school in La Sola, to the north of Camaguey. At that time teachers were demanded scientific practices on the fields and that’s how he got to this desolated landscape. He came here to study the most curious phenomenon in the region: a huge flock of pink flamingos reported since the 50’s by pilots flying over the mouth of the Maximo River.

At first he overcame plagues of mosquitos in order to make the first sighting reports. On each visit he stayed longer, till he finally settled for good. And so he also brought Loydi, his wife, a descendant of the “harshest aristocracy in Nuevitas”, he said laughing. First, it was the observation, then a conservation project –combined with the turtle’s project in the Peninsula of Guanahacabibes and that of crocodiles in Cienaga de Zapata. Later, the area was declared a Fauna Reserve and Fefo was the person responsible for watching over the project.

The flamingos moving through the mouth of the Maximo River only stay here during their reproduction period. “We used to count them by tenth thousands. Today thanks to the conservation work, they are over 120 000”.

Another element that favored the increase in number of the population of flamingos in this area is that the ecologic impact was not taken into account in the design of the rock road on the sea in Moron, Cayo Coco. “Even though they solved that in Caibarien’s (Cayo Santa Maria), the lack of bridges changed the system of sea currents in the area and with that flamingo’s diet. That’s why the moved here”.

After mating, flamingos continue their migration to the south, leaving their brood under the care of a small group of adults known as “wet nurses”. They teach the brood to feed and look for fresh water and finally fly. Then, migration returns, and the broods born the previous year join the journey their parents take once the new reproduction cycle is over.

The ringing takes place when the brood reaches a certain size and it is possible to notice the best specimens. About 250 specimens are chosen and ringed with plastic cylinders in one of their legs. These cylinders have a serial number that will make easier the study of migrations. The materials used in the rings do not cause them any physical harm nor affect their flying capacity.

The conservation project has expanded and now it involves the inhabitants of Mola, a far village from a former sugar cane colony that almost lost its social purpose with the deactivation of sugar cane mills in 2002.

In addition to providing jobs to the third part of the inhabitants of the village, Fefo has taught them a few things like diversifying their eating habits and boosting their love for nature. As a result, the ringing has eventually become a local event. It happens from the end of July and the beginning of August and it is long awaited during the whole year as the festivities in San Juan de los Remedios or the Carnivals in Santiago de Cuba.

No one slept that night in Mola

– They are coming!

The sun in August is really hot and the eyes shrink despite sunglasses. The heat coming from the ground distorts the horizon, but even so it is possible to see the big grey flock approaching.

“People are surprised to see grey flamingos –Fefo was saying yesterday—because they think they are born pink. They get the color when they are about to be one year and one year and a half old due to a substance called Beta-Carotene in their food”.

They arrive. They are surrounded by men and children from Mola who guide them by yelling and moving their arms. This is but a simple pasture. The sound flamingos make is mixed with the voices of men. They walk together and it creates a strange feeling. Men and birds coexist and the animals are not taken to a yard or a slaughter house, but to be taken a step furtheron their study and attention.

They are put in a “cage” made from fishing nets, but only for a few hours. Fefo walks among them pointing at the best specimens. One by one they are taken to be ringed. Loydi and the women from the village put a lot of care in this task; nicely they place the rings in their legs and then hand the birds to the children. These carry them to some point and release them. Another group of fine specimens are selected for captivity and commercialization to other zoos in the world.

After almost two hours of work and by noon rings are alreadyover. There is nothing else to do but to set them free and get some rest.

However, this is only half of Fefo‘s day. Now he is coordinating his next trip to the city because he is trying to get some tires sent from Havana for his truck and they got lost in Camaguey”.

José Concepción Morales is a wise man. Even living that kind of life, he questions the current national or international situation with solid arguments. He can make a nice joke or give a good advice. He can naturally quote Marti as well. Perhaps those long journeys alone allowed him to think about life, away from mundane distractions or perhaps being aware of his responsibility for the lives of men and birds under his watch, in the middle of so much dry, cracked and arid soil resulting from low tides…
– Hey, it is not easy! Now I have to go to Camaguey to fight for four tires! As if flamingos were not enough work!


Manny Kopstein

21 October, 2015

For school research on this article on Cuba’s flamingos, can you tell us when (month and approximate one or two-week span) the babies are born in this area? July? What part – early or late? Thank you,


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