Wind chimes shiver under a full moon as a caravan of cars slowly moves past the target house and pulls to the curb far down the block. Doors open and several teens emerge, clutching pink flamingos and chattering with anticipation as they plot their sneak attack.
Saul Agundez and Jonathan Munro, both 18-year-old seniors at the Fresno Adventist Academy, lead their classmates to the cover of a parked car in front of the house. Though the house windows are open and lights are on, the crouching students have no intention of turning back.
Munro surveys the scene and, when all seems safe, rushes forward. In seconds, he sticks a flamingo in a pot near the front door. Attached to the eye-catching landscape icon is a note that explains the madness to follow.
Students flood the yard, installing a flock of flamingos in lawn and flower beds. In less than two minutes, the deed is done and adrenaline erupts into laughter as the teens retreat. Another home has been "flocked," and everyone knows there will be wide eyes and plenty of snickers on this quiet street come morning.
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For two years, the senior class at the Fresno, Calif., institution, a K-12 school with an enrollment of 220, has been flocking homes to raise funds for activities and projects. This year, the academy's 24 seniors have raised $1,170 with their flamingos and will use the money to defray graduation expenses and make improvements to the school's snack bar.
"We always do flocking on the sly," says Kelly Jordan, a science teacher and senior class sponsor. "We tape a letter asking for a voluntary donation to one of the flamingos and try to put that one as close to the door as we can."
Each flocking features 24 flamingos -- one for each class member. Homeowners get the shock of their lives when they discover the pink profusion in their yards. But they also are given the opportunity to nominate another family for flocking. The candidates usually are friends and boosters of the school.
David and Cheryl Crouch of Clovis, Calif., had their yard flocked last Valentine's Day.
"My husband woke me up and said, `You can get up and look now or later, but there are 24 flamingos in our front yard,'" Cheryl Crouch says. "We didn't hear a thing the night before."
However, an alert neighbor nearly called the police, fearing vandals were about to plaster the Crouches' house with graffiti. But Jordan was there to explain what was happening and the man put his cell phone away.
The Clovis Police Department has not had any complaints about flocking, says spokeswoman Janet Stoll-Lee. But she said flockers should use caution and not do anything that might cause them to be mistaken for prowlers.
The flamingos stay up for a day or two -- long enough for neighbors to roll their eyes but not long enough to affect property values.
"My wife screamed and started laughing when she saw the flamingos," says Bob Isaacs of Fresno, whose yard was flocked last fall. "I went around telling my neighbors, 'This is not permanent. This is not permanent.' They thought it was pretty funny."
Jordan removes the flamingos after everyone has had a good laugh. The "deflocking" puts neighbors at ease, but not everyone is happy to see the plastic birds disappear.
"My neighbor has a daughter who is 3 or 4 years old," Isaacs says. "She was sad to see the flamingos go. She thought they were great."
Flocking is a lot fun, says Gianna Navarro, 18, of Clovis.
"We're able to use our skills of stealth and mystery -- and implement the fun factor," she says. "Plus, we make a load of cash."
Because flocking is done at night, it involves elements of uncertainty.
"You always wonder, 'Did we flock the right house?'" Jordan says. "And one time we tried to flock a house with a gated yard. As we were about to hop the fence, we heard a dog bark. We had to come back and flock it a few nights later when the dog wasn't out."
Flocking as a fund-raiser has been around for more than 20 years, says Don Featherstone of Fitchburg, Mass., who created the pink flamingo for Union Products in 1957.
"I'm sure it started before I noticed it," he says. "But it came to my attention back in 1987, when the flamingo turned 30. Church groups were flocking homes and selling flocking insurance. It was about this time that we started selling bulk orders of flamingos to people who did flocking for birthdays and other occasions."
One of Featherstone's favorite flocking stories involves an Oklahoma automobile dealer who used hundreds of flamingos in a promotional stunt. Under cover of darkness, over a period of days, the dealer set the pink plastic birds up in well-traveled places and reaped loads of publicity as TV and newspapers covered the movements of the mysterious flock.
The dealer's goal was to move the flock day by day until it arrived at his dealership. But he didn't count on passersby stealing the flamingos along the way and wiping out the size of his flock.
"He called and ordered 700 flamingos," Featherstone says. "And he wanted them shipped by air. I told him the air freight would cost more than the flamingos, but he needed them right away. He wound up winning a marketing award from General Motors."
Although he has been retired for six years, Featherstone still keeps a flock of 57 flamingos on permanent display in the back yard of his home. The number commemorates the year he created the pop culture ornament. He says Union Products produced more than 20 million of the molded birds before closing its doors last year.
Thanks to its brilliant color, the pink flamingo becomes an instant -- and some say garish -- focal point when installed in the home landscape. When grouped in large numbers, there seems to be a definite flock effect.
"I haven't talked to anyone who thinks flocking isn't a good thing," Cheryl Crouch says.