Flamingos: not exactly a rare sight in the Sunshine State, now are they? You’ll see them gracing innumerable billboards, postcards and souvenir shelves. Yet conservationists and wildlife managers have long debated whether the elegantly spindly pink waterbird is actually native to Florida. Many have chalked sporadic flamingo sightings here to escapees from captivity, but a first-of-its-kind review suggests flamingos are indigenous to the state and that at least some lately seen are wild-born – perhaps heralding the restoration of "a lost Florida icon," as the researchers put it.
Introducing the American Flamingo
The American flamingo is the only North American member of its family, and also the pinkest of the gang. Standing nearly 5 feet tall, this shrimp- and algae-eating filter-feeder ranges from the Bahamas and Cuba south to South America’s northern coast, with the West Indies serving as its heartland; an outlier population occupies the Galapagos Islands. Today, the major flamingo nesting grounds in the Caribbean (and thus closest to Florida) are Cuba, Great Inagua in the Bahamas, Bonaire in the Netherlands Antilles and Mexico’s Yucatan.
The Historical Picture
The new study, published in January in The Condor, scoured historical narratives and museum specimens and found plenty of evidence that the birds once very much included Florida in their geography. Naturalists in the 19th century (including famed painter/ornithologist John James Audubon) recorded seeing flocks of hundreds, even thousands, of flamingos in South Florida, with most observations hailing from the mangrove lagoons, saltmarshes and mudbanks of the Greater Everglades coast and the Florida Keys. A shallow bay east of Cape Sable – likely Snake Bight, Garfield Bight or Whitewater Bay – apparently drew a large flock each year, last recorded in March 1902. (This is close by the appropriately named coastal outpost of Flamingo, a onetime frontier town on Florida Bay now serving as an Everglades National Park visitor center.)
After that time, flamingos spotted in Florida tended to be solitary individuals, pairs or small gangs – nothing like the great flocks of yesteryear. Overhunting decimated the population: Flamingos were prized on the South Florida frontier for meat and plumage.
Passing Through or Nesting?
Nineteenth-century naturalists didn't agree as to whether Florida’s flamingos were seasonal visitors from the Caribbean or whether they actually bred here. The new study uncovers the strongest evidence so far that flamingos may have nested in Florida, though it’s not conclusive. That evidence includes a few 19th-century museum collections of flamingo eggs listed as Florida-sourced, but the Condor paper leaves open the possibility they're mislabeled. Some historical narratives hint at possible rookeries, including an observer who in 1901 reported several dozen flamingos in the Florida Keys “standing straddle of what I took to be whitish stumps” – perhaps the mounded mud nests American flamingos build.
Flamingos in Florida: An Upward Trend
The early to middle 1900s saw a major downtick in flamingo sightings in Florida, coinciding with a broader decline in flamingos across the Caribbean Basin.
The picture, however, seems to be changing. Using published reports, rare bird alerts and other datasets, the researchers investigated contemporary observations of Florida flamingos, showing they've increased over the past 65 years. While captive flamingo colonies at places such as Miami’s Hialeah Park may have been the source for some free-roaming birds seen in recent decades, the authors conclude that others definitely represent natural dispersal.
Most irrefutably, two flamingos banded by scientists in the Yucatan as chicks have showed up in Everglades National Park this century: one in 2002 that later returned to Mexico, and another in 2012. (Incidentally, another Yucatan-banded flamingo periodically visited the Louisiana coast from 2007 to 2011.) Flamingos have also appeared in northern Florida after hurricanes, suggesting those mighty storms may sometimes drive West Indian birds to the U.S. mainland.
The largest flamingo flock yet seen in Florida in recent years was one nearly 150 strong at a constructed wetland in Palm Beach County – an impressive grouping that couldn’t be traced to any missing birds from captive colonies.
The Condor study notes that the increasing frequency of flamingo sightings in Florida could reflect rebounding populations in the Caribbean. It calls for more research on the seasonality, habitat preferences and long-distance movements of Florida flamingos: to shed light on how many are indeed wild dispersers and how many might be escapees – the team is currently pursuing DNA research to that end – and, more generally, to collect the basic information on regional flamingo ecology that wasn’t gathered before the state’s historical population was essentially eliminated.
Some details have already come in courtesy of a flamingo, “Conchy,” that was captured at a Lower Keys naval base in 2015, fitted with a satellite tracker and released in Florida Bay. Conchy’s transmitter delivered a couple of years of illuminating data before Hurricane Irma squelched its signals.
“It’s just a sample size of one bird,” Zoo Miami vet Frank Ridgely, who helped monitor Conchy and also co-authored the Condor paper, told The Miami Herald, “but [Conchy] told us that Florida Bay can still support flamingos. He stayed year-round and he showed us all these important roosting and feeding areas.”
The Condor paper suggests the need for a clear management plan for flamingos in Florida. By the mid-20th century, the dearth of flamingo sightings in the state had convinced some authorities the birds were never truly native, and that the odd Florida flamingos here and there were runaways (flyaways?) from captivity. The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission has previously classified the American flamingo as “non-native,” but on the heels of this study the agency told The Miami Herald the species’s status is being reconsidered.
One of the study’s authors, Jerry Lorenz of Audubon Florida, had also once questioned the flamingo’s indigenous credentials, but the findings he and his colleagues uncovered clarified the matter.
“I went into this with great skepticism,” he told The Miami Herald. “All these things came together to convince me, and the other authors, that those flamingos are part of our native population. They belong here in Florida.”