A ‘pink wave’ of flamingoes settles into the Sunshine State

When Hurricane Idalia swept through Florida’s Big Bend region in August 2023, the storm brought more than rapid intensification, waves, and wind. It had some pink wings. Flamingos likely came up to the United States from Mexico or the Bahamas. These boisterous avians were even spotted as far north as Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. In the Sunshine State, they appear to have stuck around for several months after the storm.

Florida Audubon recently announced the results of February’s American Flamingo census and counted about 100 sightings throughout the state. The largest group of more than 50 birds was spotted in Florida Bay, 18 were seen near Pine Island, and 14 were observed at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. More participants reported seeing the birds in a single week than at any point since the early 1990s.  

“We are thrilled that there are flamingos that have remained in Florida after being blown here in 2023 by Hurricane Idalia. I actually suspect that 100 flamingos is the floor of this new population, and there could be more that were not counted during the one-week survey. We are continually monitoring for breeding flamingos,” Audubon Florida director of research Jerry Lorenz said in a recent statement.

[Related: Why flamingo milk is pink.]

American Flamingos are the tallest birds in the US, reaching up to five feet tall and weighing about five to six pounds. They primarily eat algae, small seeds, small crustaceans, and aquatic plants. The bright pink birds are also synonymous with Florida’s sunny image and state identity, even appearing as the state’s lottery mascot.

“I think it’s because they’re so visually stunning,” author Rick Kilby told The Washington Post. “The brilliant salmon pink color, the black beak, it’s almost like somebody painted them.” Kirby has documented images of Florida before interstands and theme parks for several years. 

Flamingos used to be native to the state, primarily found around the swampy everglades and beautiful Florida Keys. The shallow and salty mud flats in Florida Bay located between the Keys and the mainland are suitable for their nesting and feeding preferences, according to Audubon Florida.

Roughly 1,000 birds lived in these regions up through the 1800s. During the 19th century plume trade, an ounce of their feathers was worth more than gold. This decimated the populations of wading birds in southern Florida. Legislation was passed to protect the birds in the mid-20th century and Audubon employed wardens to monitor them, but extensive draining and ditching of the Everglades further destroyed their habitat.

Audubon Florida is hopeful that now that conservation efforts continue in the appropriately nicknamed “River of Grass,” the Everglades’ protected wetlands and improved water flow will mean there are enough critical habitat resources for the flamingoes that arrived with Hurricane Idalia to survive and thrive in the area.

“We’re optimistic these birds will stay simply because the habitat’s ready for them and because there are so many wild flamingos now (worldwide). Their numbers have made a tremendous comeback since they were almost hunted to extinction in the early 1900s (when) you didn’t have but three nesting populations,” Lorenz told South Florida’s The News-Press.

[Related: Miami suburb turns to vasectomies to solve its peacock problem.]

University of Miami biologists are also studying the genome of all six of Earth’s flamingo species and are monitoring populations as far away as South America. The American flamingos’ large wingspan–about five feet–allows them to cover distances very quickly. Some can travel over 300 miles in a single day.  

“Flamingos have a great dispersive capacity to travel far, but their movements are not as predictable as other birds with regular annual migrations,” Miami graduate student Alexis Oscar Diaz Campo said in a statement. Diaz added that where the birds eventually land ultimately depends on the availability of shallow lakes.

Audubon urges birders to give flamingos their space. If your presence is affecting their movement or behavior in any way, you are too close. They encourage using binoculars or a zoom lens to watch these colorful birds from a safe distance. 

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