FTH … WTF: Why the Fowl?

For seven consecutive Octobers, from 2013 to 2019, a flock of plastic flamingos has appeared on Bascom Hill, returning with the regularity of any migratory species. The parade of pink plastic is Fill the Hill (FTH), an annual event in which the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association raises funds for UW–Madison programs, including scholarships and student organizations. A flamingo is placed on the west slope of Bascom for each gift made during the 24 hours of Fill the Hill. This year’s event takes place from October 21 to 23. Due to the pandemic, this year’s flock will be virtual, but its goal and symbol are the same.

Still, flamingoes: you may be asking yourself, “WTF — why the fowl?” That requires going back in campus history to 1979.

On September 4, 1979, students arrived for the first day of class to see 1,008 plastic flamingos decorating Bascom Hill. It was one of the pranks put on by the Pail and Shovel Party, then the leaders of UW–Madison’s student government. Pail and Shovel was also responsible for the Statue of Liberty appearing on frozen Lake Mendota. Many of those ’79 flamingos ended up swiped by students.

Pail and Shovel sold some of the flamingoes, however. These came with a certificate of authenticity.

The Pail and Shovel era of student government ended after two years, but memory of the prank lived on. In 1990, flamingoes returned to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the original prank. Here, the UW gives a group of international students the bird.

In 2013, the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association (WFAA) decided to turn history into a challenge, with the goal of raising support for the UW. It launched FTH with a goal of inspiring 1,008 gifts — one for each of the original flamingos — in 24 hours.

Since then, FTH has become a Homecoming tradition. Parents bring their children to campus for a photo with the flock …

… and students scheme to swipe a flamingo off the hill.

Last year, FTH inspired 1,551 gifts, and the program has raised more than $2 million since it hatched.

Now FTH is part of Foundation lore. When the UW took part in a Bucky on Parade sculpture-decorating event in 2018, one WFAA statue was decorated in flamingos on Bascom.

This year, with COVID-19 plaguing campus, FTH will be entirely virtual: the event will take place, but only digital flamingos will appear on Bascom.