More Than a Century Ago, Flamingos Disappeared From Florida. Now, They’re Coming Home

Likely transported by Hurricane Idalia last August, more than 100 of the pink birds were counted in a February census in the Sunshine State, where they are considered a native species

Flamingo walking on the beach
Flamingos were nearly hunted to extinction for their feathers by the early 1900s. But, thanks in part to conservation and habitat restoration efforts, they're making a comeback in Florida. This flamingo was spotted in Miami Beach in 2018. Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Flamingo branding is everywhere in Florida, from cocktail straws and tourist T-shirts to hotel names and the Florida Lottery logo. But the real-life pink birds have been largely missing from the Sunshine State since the early 1900s, when hunters nearly drove them to extinction in the quest for their fashionable—and highly profitable—plumage.

Now, however, flamingos seem to be returning to Florida. Birders recorded 101 wild American flamingo sightings across the state in February, according to recently released figures from Audubon Florida. That count included more than 50 in Florida Bay, 18 in the Pine Island area and 14 at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Conservationists believe many of these birds were carried into the state on the winds of Hurricane Idalia in August 2023. (The storm blew flamingos to other surprising places, too, including northern states like Wisconsin.)

Flamingos have touched down in Florida after storms in the past, but they usually don’t stick around for long. This time, birders and wildlife biologists are crossing their fingers that the lanky, salmon-colored creatures are there to stay.

“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,” says Jerry Lorenz, director of research for Audubon Florida, in a statement. “We are continually monitoring for breeding flamingos.”

Flamingos were once abundant in Florida, living in huge colonies of more than 1,000 individuals in the Everglades and the Florida Keys in the 1800s. But then, in the late 19th century, it became trendy for women to wear colorful bird feathers in their hats. Hunters killed off huge swaths of flamingos and other wading birds, like snowy egrets and roseate spoonbills, because “an ounce of feathers was worth more than gold,” according to Audubon Florida.

The practice continued to be legal until 1918, when the signing of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act prohibited the capture or killing of migratory birds. But by then, many wading birds were already at risk of disappearing altogether. The draining of the Everglades in the late 19th and early 20th centuries also contributed to their demise.

In recent decades, people have sporadically seen flamingos in Florida, including a well-known individual named Conchy, who was rescued from an airport in the Florida Keys and outfitted with a tracking device in 2015. The data showed Conchy moved all over the southern part of the state, teaching scientists “more about flamingos in Florida in two years than was known in the previous 100 years,” writes Lori Rozsa for the Washington Post.

Conchy’s data—along with other evidence from aerial surveys, satellite tracking and archival reports from 1800s feather traders—helped persuade the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to list flamingos as “native” to the state. But so far, Florida officials have declined to categorize flamingos as a threatened species.

Meanwhile, conservationists have been working to restore the Everglades and other local wetland habitats. In the Caribbean and Mexico, conservation efforts have also helped flamingo populations bounce back. Now, those efforts seem to be paying off.

“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],” Lorenz tells the News-Press’ Samantha Neely.

Amid rising sea levels linked to climate change, some wading birds are already feeling the effects: Roseate spoonbills, for example, are moving farther north as their longtime nesting sites in the Everglades get flooded with ocean water.

But some researchers suspect flamingos might be able to adapt to these changes, thanks to their long legs and their preference for salty mud flats, where they find plenty of shrimp, crustaceans and small fish to eat, according to the Washington Post.

This year, forecasters are predicting a particularly bad Atlantic hurricane season. It remains to be seen what that will mean for Florida’s burgeoning flamingo population—and other bird species, more broadly.

There may be a few silver linings, however. After Hurricane Ian in September 2022, the number of pelicans and shorebirds found wrapped in dangerous fishing line or with hooks in their bodies dropped by 58 percent in southwest Florida, since fishing piers were destroyed in the storm.

And, of course, there’s always a chance this season’s hurricanes bring a few more flamingos up north to join the state’s growing flocks.

“We never welcome hurricanes here in Florida, but we did welcome some passengers,” Lorenz said during a webinar after Hurricane Idalia.

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