With stilts for legs and necks as long as your arm, American flamingos can stand nearly five feet tall. When it’s time to breed, these coral-colored birds hustle about in perfectly orchestrated dance groups that are both hilarious and mesmerizing to behold.
Now, imagine 2,500 of these beautiful birds gathered in one joyous place. That’s what you might have seen a century ago if you’d visited the coastal mudflats of southern Florida.
But if you go to the same haunts today, you’ll be lucky to see any pink at all. The birds are still common enough in parts of the Caribbean, South America, and Africa, mind you, but over the last century, flamingos have become exceedingly rare in Florida. So much so that the state does not currently consider them to be native. Which is sort of weird given that most Americans would probably guess they were Florida’s state bird if push came to shove on Final Jeopardy.
Here’s why that distinction matters. As a nonnative species, flamingos are basically on their own. Yes, the birds are technically protected from winding up on some yahoo’s barbecue by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, but that’s not the same thing as being protected by the Endangered Species Act. (By the way, BBQ flamingo may sound bizarre, but rest assured that the reason there are so few flamingos in Florida today is because the population has been hunted down to almost nothing over the last few centuries, both for the birds’ meat and, more commonly, to make fancy hats out of their exotic plumage.)
“Species that are native to the United States and which have been driven to near extinction by human activities are eligible for protection under state or federal threatened species laws,” says Steven Whitfield, a conservation biologist at Zoo Miami. Furthermore, Whitfield says such protections are more robust than those provided by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and would typically include some sort of management or recovery plan for the species.
Fortunately for the flamingo, protections could be on the way. A study published by Whitfield and his colleagues last month in the journal The Condor: Ornithological Applications reported the most thorough assessment of flamingo sightings in Florida to date and determined that there is more than enough evidence to classify the birds as bona fide locals. The study reviewed countless observations catalogued by naturalists, as well as sightings documented by citizen scientists and eggs preserved in various museum collections.
According to these sources, the last time anyone saw a flock of flamingos in Florida numbering in the hundreds was in 1902. From 1950 to 1972, the population seemed to have declined to its lowest, with sightings mostly of individuals and pairs. The numbers rose somewhat throughout the 1970s, with most observers reporting more than two birds at a time. Finally, flamingos showed evidence of rebounding between 1990 and 2015, with many more sightings of a dozen birds or more, including a glorious incident involving 147 flamingos spotted together in 2014.
All this is encouraging for the birds’ future here in the States. However, one thoroughly researched study does not equal a native species designation. “Our first step is to petition the state for a designation,” says Jerry Lorenz, the director of research for Audubon Florida and senior author of the new study. “I think if we can get the state to recognize them as a native species that is recovering, then they could very well list it.”
If that were to happen, the state would then need to drum up a recovery plan for the species. The good news is that between Everglades National Park and a string of state parks and national wildlife refuges in the Florida Keys, most of the places suitable for flamingo nesting and feeding are already under some sort of habitat protection, Lorenz says. The bad news is that these areas are already severely degraded, so Lorenz and his coauthors would recommend restoration for such habitats in the event of a listing.
Whitfield says he’s “pretty optimistic” that flamingos can make a comeback if they are given a few more protections.
Interestingly, the fate of the flamingo may well have repercussions for other species colonizing new territories as a result of climate change. Lorenz also studies the roseate spoonbill, another pink bird, and says historically these animals have never nested north of Tampa Bay on the west side of Florida and Cape Canaveral in the east.
“Well, now we’ve got them nesting in Georgia,” he laughs. “I’ve even heard rumor that they’re nesting in South Carolina, but I can’t confirm that.” What’s more, a pair of neotropical cormorants flew into Everglades National Park this year and fledged four chicks—something that’s never been documented there before.
The world is warming, and animals will expand or otherwise alter their ranges accordingly. And even though the evidence says flamingos have been in Florida historically, their designation as a “native” species and protection of their habitat could pave the way for other birds, including newcomers like spoonbills and cormorants, to move to Florida. Why not kick things off by welcoming home the fantastic, charismatic flamingo?
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