Why Is Madison's Official City Bird the Plastic Pink Flamingo?

Photo by SeanPavone/Shutterstock.com

The animal that comes to most people’s mind when they think of Madison, Wisconsin, is the badger because of the nickname of the state’s flagship university located in the town. But Madison itself thinks differently; it’s a flamingo that should be appearing in your mind first.

The pink plastic flamingo is the official bird of Madison, a place where flamingos do not live and that is nowhere remotely near anywhere where flamingos live, zoos notwithstanding. There’s really no connection between Madison or the state of Wisconsin and the notoriously pink fowl.

As you probably guessed, it’s all because of some 70s pranksters.

In the late 1970s, the Pail & Shovel Party held control of the University of Wisconsin’s student government, and it had a bit of a reputation. In the winter before, the party and its leaders, Leon Varjian and Jim Mallon, had put a papier-mache Statue of Liberty head and torch on the frozen Lake Mendota, following through on a campaign promise to move the famous statue from New York to Madison.

They also spearheaded a $10,000 toga party for Wisconsin students that grew to be so big, Jim Belushi called in to express his support.

“Sure we are squandering funds,” Varjian said in 1978 in response to criticism over his government wasting money. “Absolutely true! We squander them on beer. We squander them on parties… We squander them on all sorts of things. That’s what keeps the Wisconsin Student Association strong.”

The Pail & Shovel politicians postured that students should get a rousing welcome when they returned for classes. So, Varjian and Mallon set up 1,008 plastic pink flamingo lawn ornaments randomly across the Bascom Hill field in the middle of campus as a greeting on Sept. 4, 1979.

“They put them up, as far as I know, during the night or very early in the morning,” former Director of UW-Madison Archives David Null told Jason Klein of Forward Madison FC in 2018. “You see photos of people looking kind of befuddled by them. And people started taking them right away. People just grabbed them and took them.”

The prank became a phenomenon, and flamingos became a staple of the Madison zeitgeist. It has remained so through the decades, and in 2009 as the 30th anniversary of the prank neared, a local newspaper columnist, Doug Moe, pushed for the flamingo to become the city’s official bird. His idea was a rousing success, with the city council taking it up and passing the measure, 15-4, later that same year.

Dave Cieslewicz, who was Madison mayor from 2003 to 2011 and a student at Wisconsin back in 1979, was a strong supporter of the idea to make the flamingo the city’s official bird.

“Unintentionally, I think (Mallon and Varjian) sort of caught the vibe of the city, or at least the vibe of the way this city wants to be,” he explained to Klein. “It embraces the feeling of, ‘Hey yeah we know we’re different, we know we’re a little crazy, we like that.’”