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Why the Plastic Flamingo is the Official Bird of Madison, Wisconsin

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Most states have an official state bird, but it's less common for a city to declare an official bird. About 28 American cities have proclaimed a fowl of choice: Chicago’s is the peregrine falcon and Key West, Florida’s is the chicken—and then there’s Madison, Wisconsin.

In 2009, Madison declared the pink flamingo its official bird—the plastic pink flamingo. The flamingo obviously isn’t native to Wisconsin, and the inventor of the plastic yard flamingo was from Massachusetts, not the Badger State.

So, what gives? In 1979, a few members of the student government at the University of Wisconsin-Madison decided to prank the dean. The group, known as the Pail & Shovel Party, was already known for their tricks. They were responsible for the replica of the Statue of Liberty stuck in Lake Mendota the previous year. They also threw a $10,000 toga party for the student body—approved by John Belushi himself—and purchased toys to give to students waiting in long lines at class registration.

This time, they planned a prank that would also be the perfect “Welcome Back” message to students. On the first day of the fall semester, they decorated the lawn near the dean's office with exactly 1008 of the kitschy birds. 

In honor of the frivolous but historic flamingo incident, local newspaper columnist Doug Moe lobbied in 2009 to have the toy named the official bird of the city. "I mean, Madison is a city with five official songs," he wrote. "Our council once debated renaming Bassett Street Ho Chi Minh Trail. Our manhole covers are sewer access covers. Through it all, we've always managed to laugh at ourselves. So what better symbol than the plastic pink flamingo?"

The City Council voted in favor of the status, 15-4. “If you don't have a little fun, [life]'s not worth living,” Councilwoman Marsha Rummel said.

Today, the legacy lives on in more than just the flamingo’s status as the official bird of the city: One of the infamous birds has been archived at the Wisconsin Historical Society.

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This 1940 Film on Road Maps Will Make You Appreciate Map Apps Like Never Before
Douglas Grundy, Three Lions/Getty Images
Douglas Grundy, Three Lions/Getty Images

In the modern era, we take for granted having constantly updated, largely accurate maps of just about every road in the world at our fingertips. If you need to find your way through a city or across a country, Google Maps has your back. You no longer have to go out and buy a paper map.

But to appreciate just what a monstrous task making road maps and keeping them updated was in decades past, take a look at this vintage short film, "Caught Mapping," spotted at the Internet Archive by National Geographic.

The 1940 film, produced by the educational and promotional company Jam Handy Organization (which created films for corporations like Chevrolet), spotlights the difficult task of producing and revising maps to keep up with new road construction and repair.

The film is a major booster of the mapmaking industry, and those involved in it come off as near-miracle workers. The process of updating maps involved sending scouts out into the field to drive along every road and note conditions, compare the roads against topographical maps, and confirm mileage figures. Then, those scouts reported back to the draughtsmen responsible for producing revised maps every two weeks. The draughtsmen updated the data on road closures and other changes.

Once those maps were printed, they were "ready to give folks a good steer," as the film's narrator puts it, quietly determining the success of any road trip in the country.

"Presto! and right at their fingertips, modern motorists can have [information] on any road they wish to take." A modern marvel, really.

[h/t National Geographic]

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David Rumsey Historical Map Collection // CC BY-NC-SA 3.0
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The Largest Known Map of the 16th-Century World Has Been Digitized
David Rumsey Historical Map Collection // CC BY-NC-SA 3.0
David Rumsey Historical Map Collection // CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

The challenge of designing an accurate, detailed world map has stumped cartographers for centuries, but Urbano Monte got pretty close to achieving perfection in 1587. Now, for the first time, his full 10-by-10-foot world map has been assembled and digitized, Co.Design reports.

There are only two copies of the map: one in Milan, Italy and the second, digitized one at the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection at Stanford University. The massive, extremely detailed illustration, which comprises 60 hand-drawn sheets, is the largest known early map in the world. The Italian cartographer drew it using the azimuthal equidistant projection, which depicts the flattened globe with the North Pole at its center. According to Monte, this gave a more accurate view of the Earth than the Mercator Projection, which was published just two decades earlier in 1569.

The map's depth of detail becomes more apparent the longer you look at it. In addition to country names and geographical landmarks, Monte took the time to note information on weather, meteorological events, length of days at different latitudes, world leaders, and significant countries and places.

Map details.
David Rumsey Historical Map Collection // CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

To view the completed map in all its glory, you can download the 3D image through Google Earth or view it through Apple’s augmented reality app AR Globe.

[h/t Co.Design]

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