Flights of Fancy

Erica SmithBlog Tower Garden, History2 Comments

Edward Bok loved birds and one of his purposes in creating the gardens was that it should be not only a refuge for people but for birds as well.

“There came to this grandson a vision that this piece of land, the nearest to the sky in Florida, might also be made a haven of cooling rest for those little citizens of the world of wings…”
– Edward Bok, Twice Thirty

In 1931, Bok Tower Gardens held a special Festival of the Birds, featuring talks by ornithologist Charles Bowman Hutchins, and a special concert with songs inspired by our feathered friends. To this day, the Gardens is a wonderful spot for bird watching. As you stroll through the gardens and along the preserve trails, you can see owls, kestrels, herons, hawks, scrub jays, cardinals, eagles, and more! But did you know that you that the Gardens used to be home to some birds of a different feather? View the 1931 Concert for the Birds Program.

Nightingales

Edward Bok loved the nightingales’ song and thought that by having nightingales in the Gardens, they might eventually learn to imitate the beautiful sounds of the carillon. The nightingales were first brought over from England in 1926 and were each given a name. Some of the names included Mr. & Mrs. Carr, Mr. Newton, Mr. Lane, and Miss Kenwood. Sadly, being native to a temperate climate, they were not well suited to the subtropical climate of Central Florida. But in their time at the Gardens, the nightingales were well appreciated and managed to carry on a small, feathered melodrama in their aviary. View more about the Nightingales in our digital collections.

One of the nightingales, Mrs. Carr, was killed by Mr. Newton however a post-mortem revealed that Mrs. Carr was actually male. Mr. Newton is described to be a “fine bird” but also “pugnacious,” while Mr. Carr was noted as being “very gentle.” Mr. Lane flew away and, sadly, gentle Mr. Carr was later killed by a snake that had gotten into the aviary.

Flamingos

Perhaps most famous of all of Bok Tower Gardens’ feathered residents were the flamingos. Between 1926 and 1944 the Gardens was home to flamingos that originated from South Florida, Cuba, Andros Island (Bahamas), Chile, and West Africa. Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. was initially against the idea of having flamingos in the gardens, worried that their webbed feet would affect the soil lining the reflection pool and destroy the waterside vegetation.

Although most of the flamingos weren’t given names as the nightingales were, the flamingos too had quite adventurous lives. One flamingo was dubbed Old Bill, sometimes referred to as “the old fellow.” In December 1926, Old Bill flew off in the direction of Lake Pierce, never to be seen again. In September 1927, a flamingo was sighted just south of Tallahassee. One ornithologist at the time suspected that it had come from Bok Tower Gardens but in 2016, Dr. Steven Whitfield of Zoo Miami stated that he thinks it is unlikely for a flamingo to have flown so far and in that direction. What do you think? Was it Old Bill headed for a visit to our State’s capital?

While Central Florida was too warm for the nightingales, it was not quite warm enough for the flamingos. Some died due to cold weather, a couple were killed by wild animals, and Edward Bok speculated that a couple of the flamingos might have ended up “adorning women’s hats” – something he strongly advocated against! View more about the flamingos in our digital collections.

Shifting the Focus from Exotic to Native

Over the years, swans and wood ducks have also called the Gardens home for periods of time, but we have learned much in the 94 years since the nightingales and flamingos were first brought into the Gardens. Today, we no longer import birds into the Gardens, but instead focus on encouraging the best possible environment for the native and migrating birds who reside naturally in this area.

An estimated 100+ species call this area home and our land stewards work to manage the natural lands by restoring them to longleaf pine ecosystem – as they were in the early 1900s. Longleaf pine, also known as sandhill, is one of the most ecologically diverse habitats in the world and supports a wide variety of plants and animals that are adapted to the dry, sandy soils. Restoration efforts – which include soil analysis, removal of exotic species, replanting of native species, and prescribed fire – can take decades, but the end result is a rich habitat with healthy trees and plants for birds and other wildlife to make their home.

This blog post was written by Jaime Fogel, Library and Archival Collections Manager.

2 Comments on “Flights of Fancy”

  1. I’m curious whether the animals’ behavior at Bok has changed this year. With the absence of visitors, are you seeing more birds in the Gardens?

  2. We are seeing more wildlife in the Gardens. The squirrels are missing the attention and snacks. You can hear the songbirds throughout the Gardens.

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