The Buzz

Florida’s most conspicuous bird is born this way.

Stories Stephanie Wilson
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Florida is awash with iconography of the flamingo. Depictions of the tall, lanky bird with pink-orange plumage, a bent bill, and stick-like legs pop up everywhere: lottery tickets, cocktail napkins, key chains, front lawns, the opening credits of Miami Vice. The word itself is unescapable. The emblematic moniker flamingo is used in the name of buildings, boutiques, and boulevards coast to coast. All proof that the flamingo is the enduring symbol of the Sunshine State. But until 2018, the bird was considered just another tourist or transplant. Put another way, a nonnative species here to take advantage of the warm climate and natural resources.

Which kinda makes sense. I mean, have you ever seen a wild flamingo in Florida? Rhetorical question. Although you might have seen Pinky, a lone bird with coral-colored feathers that’s been hanging out in St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge for the last 15 months. First spotted on Halloween 2018, Pinky the Flamingo is thought to have hitched a ride on the Category 5 monster Hurricane Michael to the panhandle from the Yucatán Peninsula. It’s been known to happen. American, or Caribbean, flamingos were spotted in the refuge four hours north of Tampa in 1927, 1965, 1972, and 1995, each time after a hurricane that followed the same path Michael blew through.

Four hundred miles to the south and two hundred years in the past, flamingos were common in Florida. In the 19th century, early naturalists reported spotting large flocks with hundreds if not thousands of the long-limbed birds clustered amid the state’s aquatic landscape. According to a study led by Zoo Miami biologists published in The Condor journal in 2018, the earliest account of a flamingo sighting in Florida was recorded near Tampa in 1827. Over the next 70 years, reports of large flocks—hundreds, even thousands of flamingos—were reported throughout the southern part of the state. But by the early 20th century, Florida’s native flamingo population had been hunted and poached to extinction.

Or so everyone thought. But by the 1950s and ’60s, flamingos began popping up in the wild again—a long-necked bird spotted here, a rosy-pink pair reported there. They were assumed to be escapees from domestic flocks being kept around the state.

By the early 1970s, growing groups of the social birds caught the attention of birders, who were reporting more and more frequent sightings. By 2014, a flock of 147 flamingos was spotted in rural Palm Beach County. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FFWC) considered the bird a nonnative species, but the growing population couldn’t be attributed to zoo denizens on the lam. Where are the birds coming from?

Turns out, flamingos have been hiding here all along, researchers concluded after looking at early explorers’ notes, museum specimens, and birding reports gathered over the last two centuries. Their findings, published in The Condor, determined that the flamingos in Florida aren’t captive escapees of an invasive species; the birds are native to the Sunshine State. Soon after the report was published, flamingos were removed from the list of nonnative species on FFWC’s website. It turns out Florida’s feathery cultural icon is a true Floridian after all.

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