Five American flamingos touched down in Wisconsin last week, marking the first time the leggy birds have ever been spotted in the state, reports the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Birders turned up in droves to watch the elegant, out-of-place creatures wade along the western shore of Lake Michigan in Port Washington, a small town just north of Milwaukee.
Three of the birds were adults with pink plumage, while two were juveniles that still had their gray feathers.
The birds arrived at South Beach in the afternoon on September 22 and stuck around for several hours before taking flight again, per FOX6 News Milwaukee’s Madalyn O’Neill. So many people showed up to see them that police had to restrict parking.
“It’s so unique, and it is so ephemeral that in a moment they can be gone,” says Spencer Stehno, president of the Benjamin F. Goss Bird Club, to FOX6 News.
The next day, the small flock was seen roughly 100 miles west of Port Washington in the Wisconsin River.
This rare sighting marks the second time in recent months that pink birds have caused a stir in Wisconsin. In late July, a roseate spoonbill spent some time in the northeastern part of the state near Green Bay. Like flamingos, roseate spoonbills have pink feathers—but they are more diminutive and have a wide, flat bill used for scooping up fish and invertebrates; roseate spoonbills also have shorter, thicker necks, per the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
The flamingos’ recent arrival in Wisconsin delighted Midwestern birders, but it wasn’t a total surprise to wildlife biologists. Flamingos have been spotted in other northern states in recent weeks, including Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio. They’ve cropped up in southern states, too, from Alabama to South and North Carolina, Texas, Tennessee and Virginia, reports USA Today’s Dinah Voyles Pulver.
It’s possible the birds were soaring between Cuba and Mexico when the strong winds of Hurricane Idalia, which hit Florida on August 30, interrupted their route, per the Washington Post’s Kyle Melnick.
Flamingo update! The ‘Idalia flamingos’ are on the move, making waves Friday when they appeared in Wisconsin for the first time in recorded history!— American Bird Conservancy (@ABCbirds) September 26, 2023
Bryan Lenz#FlamingoUpdate #IdaliaFlamingos #ABCBirds #BirdNews #WisconsinFlamingo #GreatLakesFlamingo #AmericanFlamingo pic.twitter.com/MLkmUdZx5R
Dozens have also been seen in Florida, where they’re a colorful symbol of fun in the sun. Though flamingos are commonly associated with the Sunshine State, the birds have largely been absent from its borders since the early 1900s. There “used to be thousands of them,” but the birds were nearly hunted to extinction for their plumage starting in the 1880s, says Jerry Lorenz, the state research director for Audubon Florida, to CBC Radio’s “As It Happens.”
“We have never had, since then, a resident population,” he adds.
The typical range for American flamingos includes the northern coast of South America, as well as Cuba, Hispaniola, the Bahamas and parts of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, per the American Birding Association’s Amy Davis. The conspicuous birds prefer to inhabit areas with brackish or salt water, as well as alkaline lakes, per the Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute.
FLAMINGO ALERT - believe it or not, this is in Wisconsin.— Madalyn O'Neill (@newsmadalyn) September 22, 2023
Birdwatchers say they believe Hurricane Idalia swept the birds this far north. South Beach in Port Washington on Lake Michigan is full of people checking them out and taking pics. pic.twitter.com/pbIkBlL4P9
When storms like Hurricane Idalia disrupt birds’ normal flight patterns, the creatures may seek refuge in unusual places to rest up before they try reaching their intended destination again. Birders call this scenario a “fallout.”
The flamingos will likely hang out in North America until they feel ready to make the long trip south to their typical habitat, Lorenz tells CBC Radio. Or, if biologists get their wish, some of the iconic, pink birds may choose to stick around in Florida and reestablish a wild population.
“To think that we could get them back, it has a feeling of redemption to it,” says Julie Wraithmell, Audubon Florida’s executive director, to the Washington Post. “If we can keep their habitat healthy in Florida, there should be no reason why they couldn’t.”