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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Something odd turned up in the skies over Russia a few years back. It wasn't supposed to be there. No one knew how it got there. Everyone asked what's that doing here, including our correspondent Robert Krulwich. So he decided to find out.

Ms. MARINA TABAKOVA (Gardener): (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. IAN FRAZIER (Author, "Travels in Siberia"): Ah-ha. Ah-ha.

ROBERT KRULWICH: I have a friend, Ian.

Ms. TABAKOVA: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. FRAZIER: Ah-ha. Ah-ha.

KRULWICH: Ian Frazier, he went to Siberia in the winter when...

Mr. IAN FRAZIER (Author, "Travels in Siberia"): It's extremely cold.

KRULWICH: He was writing a book and he found himself in the little town of Severobaikalsk, where he was taken to of all places, a greenhouse.

Mr. FRAZIER: And you go in and it's humid and filled with tropical plants. Then there's a fountain in there.

KRULWICH: I can hear the fountain. Who are you talking to?

Mr. FRAZIER: What you're hearing is the gardener.

KRULWICH: Gardener.

Mr. FRAZIER: A woman named Marina Tabakova and that's me trying to disguise the fact that I'm not exactly sure always what she's talking about.

KRULWICH: Well, what is she talking about?

Mr. FRAZIER: She very much wanted to tell me the story of flamingoes from the...

KRULWICH: Of the what?

Mr. FRAZIER: The flamingoes.

Ms. TABAKOVA: Flaminka(ph).

KRULWICH: It's a flamingo.

Ms. TABAKOVA: It's a flamingo...

Mr. FRAZIER: This was like the biggest that had happened there in a while.

KRULWICH: Marina's flamingo story has been translated. We've fact-checked it. It is not only entirely trued, it is so strange.

In 2003, in a nearby village, Vernemarkovo, in the Oskhotsky region of Siberia, two boys, Kolya and Maksim Muravyev, were ice fishing. And it's November the 10th, so the temperature is 13 degrees below zero - very cold.

Mr. FRAZIER: Kind of a...

(Soundbite of sound effect)

Mr. FRAZIER: ...creaky cold.

KRULWICH: And sitting there by the Lena River, the two boys look up and they see what looks like a flamingo, a tropical-looking bird in the sky overhead.

Mr. FRAZIER: It's snowing, ice all around, and this bird is falling.

KRULWICH: What do you mean falling?

Mr. FRAZIER: It just came out of the sky. It was in a blizzard, as she described it to me, or is in a snowstorm. And this frozen flamingo plummets on the ground.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: In fact, it was a real flamingo...

Mr. FRAZIER: Yeah.

KRULWICH: ...in Siberia. Now, this has to be unusual.

Ms. MARITA DAVISON (Ph.D. Candidate, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Cornell University): Oh, yeah. I mean...

KRULWICH: This is Cornell ornithologist and flamingo scholar Marita Davison.

Ms. DAVISON: Yeah, I was shocked when I heard that.

KRULWICH: Cause flamingoes get cold. But in Siberia, it's really, really cold.

Ms. DAVISON: They're on another level, I think, when we're talking about cold.

KRULWICH: Yeah, but what was it doing there? That's my - what is it - why was...

Ms. DAVISON: I'm stumped, Robert. I just...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DAVISON: I don't know.

KRULWICH: The Muravyev boys then took that flamingo home to their family apartment. They fed it ground fish, buckwheat - which is not normal flamingo food, they warmed it up - and gradually it got better. It even bit the family dog. We have a picture of it in the living room by the TV set, eating from a bucket.

Mr. FRAZIER: Yeah, this is the flamingo.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: You can see it on our website, by the way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: It's huge for a house pet.

Mr. FRAZIER: Yeah.

KRULWICH: So after a few weeks, the Muravyevs agree to have the flamingo transferred to someplace warmer.

Ms. TABAKOVA: (Foreign language spoken)

KRULWICH: And the nearest warm place was Marina Tabakova's greenhouse.

Ms. TABAKOVA: He was warm and...

KRULWICH: She took care of it until it finally got moved to a Siberian zoo and that should be the end of the story, except...

Ms. DAVISON: It happened twice, right?

KRULWICH: Yeah, one year later.

Ms. DAVISON: I think it was even the same month, in November.

KRULWICH: Yeah, November 2004, another bird comes flying out of the sky by another Siberian river, the Yenisei River. And again...

Mr. FRAZIER: It's a flamingo.

KRULWICH: Yeah?

Mr. FRAZIER: Yeah.

Ms. DAVISON: Yeah.

KRULWICH: The second flamingo was also rescued. It was also taken to Marina's greenhouse, where it was then also taken to that same zoo. So you have to wonder: What are the odds of two solitary flamingoes falling out of the sky, in two successive years in Siberia.

Ms. DAVISON: It's brilliant.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DAVISON: It's pretty remote.

KRULWICH: Exactly.

Ms. DAVISON: And then it makes me wonder, you know, then how many of these birds were there and just weren't found?

KRULWICH: After all, says Marita Davison, flamingoes are social animals.

Ms. DAVISON: Right, they like being in groups.

KRULWICH: So if you find one all by itself?

Ms. DAVISON: It's not normal.

KRULWICH: Which means - why, you think they were flocks of flamingoes flying over Siberia?

Ms. DAVISON: Yeah. Yes.

KRULWICH: Oh, come on. What's your evidence for such a thing?

Ms. DAVISON: That's a good question and I don't know that we really know the full range, as far as their tolerance for temperature. But, you know, when we kind of combed through and dug a little deeper, it seems like it's happened before.

KRULWICH: About a hundred years ago - also in November, also in Siberia - there were also multiple sightings by hunters and by scientists of batches of flamingoes.

Ms. DAVISON: Quite a few sightings of birds in flocks as large as 30 birds, I believe.

KRULWICH: And what were they doing there?

Ms. DAVISON: Gee, I really don't know. But, as we were digging around, there's a phenomenon that's actually more common than you would think in migrating birds - the phenomenon of reverse migration, where they will travel on a route that is exactly 180 degrees in the opposite direction.

KRULWICH: Because something inside, in their wiring, gets flipped. Now, this is well-established in some birds; up till now, not in flamingoes. But you could imagine a bunch of flamingoes in Kazakhstan, where they do sometimes live, and they're done raising their babies; it's November...

Ms. DAVISON: Which is around the time that they would be trying to get out of there.

KRULWICH: So they take off for their fall trip back to the south. And for whatever reason - maybe reverse wiring - they, says Marita...

Ms. DAVISON: Most likely just got turned around trying to get to their wintering ground.

KRULWICH: Which is where?

Ms. DAVISON: Which is towards the southern shores of the Caspian Sea.

KRULWICH: It's in Iran. And is that by some chance exactly the opposite direction from Oskhotsk, which our town in Siberia?

Ms. DAVISON: Yeah. Well, I mean, you know, we could do...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DAVISON: If we just kind of roughly eyeball it, I think, you look at it and it seems like it's exactly 180 degrees off...

KRULWICH: Wow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DAVISON: ...and about the same distance, you know, give or take depending on where we're talking - but about the distance. So that kind of suggests to me that perhaps this reverse migration is what we're seeing happening.

Maybe these birds just, out of sheer survival mode just, you know, went wherever they could and they wound up in Siberia.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: Which is why for the past few years, there've been two lucky flamingoes - one called Phila, the other Phima - living in the Krasnayarsk Zoo. And if a little kid comes by and says, well, what are they doing here, mom? Maybe now we know.

Robert Krulwich, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: We checked with the Krasnayarsk Zoo to see if the birds are still there. It turns out both of them did stay in Siberia, although one of them, sadly, recently passed away.

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

ARI SHAPIRO, host:

And I'm Ari Shapiro.

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