Few of us Floridians are native to the state. Even our emblematic flamingos were widely thought to be escapees from captivity—until now.
A new study sheds new light on a long-standing controversy by suggesting flamingos are indeed true residents of the Sunshine State.
Food and feathers
There are six species of flamingo, and the American, or Caribbean, flamingo is found in Florida. The bird also lives in the Caribbean, Mexico, and South America.
"During the 1800s, it was commonly accepted that [flamingos] were native," says study leader Steven M. Whitfield, a conservation ecologist at Zoo Miami's Conservation and Research Department.
Naturalist John James Audubon himself visited Florida in the 1830s specifically to see flamingos, Whitfield says by email. By 1900, though, flamingos had been hunted for food, skins, and feathers—almost to their vanishing point. (Related: "What's Your Favorite Extinct Species? Scientists' Top Picks.")
As flamingos disappeared from the wild, random sightings of the bird began to be considered fugitives from captive populations. In the 1950s, for example, captive flamingos would regularly escape from Hialeah Park Race Track.
"That coincidence just led the experts at the time to come to the conclusion that they were escapees," says co-author Jerry Lorenz, state research director for Audubon's Everglades Science Center.
Return of the native
The study shows it's unlikely Florida's flamingos—which are increasing in population—are escapees, Whitfield says.
"Instead, it's the historic population in the very beginnings of a recovery."
In the study, published recently in The Condor: Ornithological Applications, the authors pored over historical and museum records that suggest flamingos are native to Florida. For example, the scientists found a reference to four flamingo egg specimens from the 1880s, indicating the birds nested in the state at that time.
More recently, in 2014, residents were shocked to see 147 of the bright pink birds in a remote area of Palm Beach County.
Such a large flock "appearing then disappearing makes it hard to argue they aren't coming here on their own," Whitfield says.
The study may help the species regain their status as native species, which are protected and managed by state and federal agencies, he says. (The state has already removed its page describing American flamingos as non-native.)
Conchy, a flamingo found at the Key West Naval Air Station in 2015 and taken to Zoo Miami, was initially not released due to its non-native status.
The state eventually allowed his release based on the two flamingos that had turned up in the Everglades' Florida Bay after being banded as chicks in the Yucatán—evidence of natural dispersal. (Read why birds matter, and are worth protecting.)
Conchy was tagged and released and didn't leave Florida Bay for two years, Lorenz says, showing that the region "can sustain flamingos year-round."
Beyond the fact flamingos are rightful residents of Florida, Lorenz just thinks they're cool birds.
They stand five feet tall, with a wingspan of up to 50 inches, and "almost give off their own light," thanks to the brilliant pink from their diet of snails, crustaceans, and crabs—without which they'd turn gray, he says. (Read about a rare, jet-black flamingo spotted in Cyprus.)
The oddest thing about flamingos is their tongue, which the Romans considered a delicacy, he notes.
The muscular organs, which are encased in their lower jaw and can't move, squeeze mud through structures in the bird's bill called lamelle, which are like strainers that extract tiny prey.
So many things about the flamingo are weird. Of course they belong here in Florida.