Are Flamingos Florida Natives?

Flamingos in Monroe, Florida. cuatrok77/flickr

Flocks of native flamingos were once a common sight in Florida, but they were hunted out of existence by 1900. Any of the birds seen in the state were believed to have escaped from a captive flock or to have settled here from Mexico or the Caribbean.

At least that's been the "official" story of flamingos in the Sunshine State for decades.

"There was a kind of generational thing,” said Jerry Lorenz, Audubon Florida's state research director, told the Miami Herald. "Everybody accepted they were native and then everybody accepted they were not."

A study published in the American Ornithological Society's journal The Condor makes the case that the pendulum should swing back to the birds being considered Florida natives.

Researchers reexamined historical evidence of flamingos in Florida and analyzed the possible origins of flocks that have been spotted in the state in recent years. They concluded that flamingos did once occur naturally in Florida prior to being hunted, and that the flocks people report seeing now are most likely from Mexico or the Caribbean.

The researchers also managed to tag a bird dubbed Conchy, and his living patterns provided a wealth of information, including that flamingos in the state prefer to hang out in the interior of mangrove islands. Such places provide plenty of shelter for the birds but also keep them out of sight.

"This article finally sheds welcome light on status of these iconic birds in Florida. The authors meticulously researched historic records and compiled more recent sightings to reconstruct the history and population trends of flamingos in Florida," the American Museum of Natural History’s Felicity Arengo, a flamingo conservation expert who was not involved in the study, told the American Ornithological Society's blog.

Given the results, the researchers hope the state and the U.S. federal government will classify flamingos as a native to the state so they can be protected by endangered species laws, and that this study can help shapea plan for managing the birds in the future. According to the Herald, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has already changed the flamingo's designation to native in some parts of the state, and did so before the paper was published.