The flamingos appeared seemingly out of nowhere.
They were taped to office cubicles, nestled in potted plants, and resting on conference room tables.
When the palm-sized plastic birds showed up last summer at Charlesbridge Publishing in Watertown, there was no explanation for their sudden arrival, but staff at the small children’s book company were enthralled.
Where did they come from? What message were they meant to send? Who was behind their presence?
“It started really bothering everyone,” said Ellie Erhart, a design assistant at the company. “Not in a bad way. It was good and happy to receive a flamingo, but it was also like, ‘Who put this here?’”
The mystery persisted for months, before it was eventually resolved at a holiday gift swap in December. The office prank — a whimsical scheme that was equal parts wholesome and mischievous — became an online sensation, after a Twitter thread detailing the practical joke went viral before the holidays. Since then, it’s inspired legions of officemates to bring some levity to the workplace.
Her 16-member team at the company wouldn’t figure it out for months, but inspiration for the stunt struck for Charlesbridge senior editor Karen Boss in June, when she spotted a set of string lights, each tiny bulb encased in a pink flamingo made of frosted plastic, while helping her mother clean out a shed.
They were bound for the trash, but Boss had an idea: The adorable birds deserved a better fate than the landfill, she thought, and they should make people smile one last time.
So she brought them home and, early one morning, placed several of them on her coworkers’ desks anonymously.
“My main motivation, just in general, is to make people happy,” Boss said. “And so I really figured that this might be just a cute, fun thing as we were coming back to the office” after COVID-19 restrictions.
She had no idea just how far her colleagues would take it, or that the mysterious birds would become the talk of the office for half the year.
When Mira Kennedy, a 25-year-old production associate, was “flamingo-ed,” she snapped a picture and posted it on Slack, a messaging app for businesses.
“Where did these come from?” she wrote.
But no one confessed.
“We were all very confused, and a little delighted,” Kennedy said. “We suspected everyone. Everyone was just pointing fingers. It was a bit like a fun witch hunt.”
Theories spread quickly. Alibis were checked. Evidence was cross-referenced. Once, when an editor loudly lamented not having a flamingo, and then promptly received one, staffers scrambled to figure out who was in earshot at the time.
Due to a company COVID policy, Charlesbridge kept a log of who was in the office and when, so someone decided to consult it to look for clues.
But Boss was always two steps ahead.
“That didn’t work because Karen came in on her days off all sneakily-like,” Kennedy said. “I never thought someone would commit to this that hard.”
There was so much interest in the flamingos that Boss had to track down and buy some more online, to make sure everyone got one. To cover her tracks, she put a flamingo on her own desk, too.
This wasn’t the first time Boss surprised people with anonymous acts of whimsy. During the doldrums of the pandemic, she secretly distributed 100 tiny wooden hearts to her neighbors’ mailboxes in Dedham, and later walked the streets with a bag of googly eyes and stuck them on signs and telephone polls to make them look like faces.
“I have this little history of leaving cute things for people to find that might bring them a little bit of a smile in their day,” she said.
But the flamingo caper was her longest con yet — one that finally came to a “grand finale” around the holidays.
During the company’s “secret Santa” exchange, she slipped a plastic flamingo into a gift bag. When an employee reached inside and pulled it out, the reaction was pure chaos.
“She actually held it way up in the air,” Boss said. “Everyone started to scream and the whole room erupted. It was really fantastic.”
Erhart said people might think she was exaggerating, “but it was absolutely as dramatic as she said it was. There was literally yelling.”
Boss was proud of her months-long plan, so she posted a play-by-play on Twitter in mid-December. In no time, the light-hearted story became a sensation as thousands of comments flowed in from admirers around the world.
As of Wednesday, the thread had been viewed nearly 10 million times.
One person called it “the cutest thing ever to have happened.”
“My favorite story of the year,” another person said.
Some commenters shared their own stories of heart-warming pranks, while others said it felt like a Christmas movie come to life — or, more fittingly, a children’s book.
The tale came at exactly the right time, when angst and discord on social media has seemed to intensify.
“Twitter is sort of having some major issues at the moment, but during the holidays people love these kinds of feel good things,” Boss said. “I think that’s why it resonated.”
Boss was particularly fond of those who took note of her first name, and the bad rap it can get online.
“Some people were saying, ‘This is the Karen we need,’” she said.
Most of all, she’s pleased that her tale has made people want to cook up similar stunts with their coworkers.
“I do hope people go back to their offices in the new year and try to bring some joy to their space,” she said. “I think that would be really awesome.”