Flamingos Are Returning to Florida!

flock of flamingos


It make me so happy that flamingos are returning to my beloved Florida!

During the decade that I lived there, 1964-1974, I never saw a single flamingo in the wild.  While the image of the giant pink wading bird was everywhere–motel signs, beach towels, T-shirts, and post cards–no real flamingos could be seen anywhere in nature.  In fact, during those growing up years in Florida, I don’t think I even thought of flamingos as actual animals who had once lived in Florida, in large colonies.  To me, and probably most other Floridians, flamingos were little more than a kitschy symbol of the Sunshine State.

So a few weeks ago, when I happened to hear on National Public Radio that  flamingos are returning to their native Everglades and other south Florida locations where they once thrived, I could have wept for joy.  I had to learn more.

You see, when it comes to the well-being of other species with whom we humans share the planet, I am always ready to believe the worst.  I am sickened, but never surprised, to learn that yet another species is struggling because of us humans.  So when I hear good news, of a species making a comeback, I am thrilled to have my habitual negativity challenged.

Wild flamingos disappeared from Florida well over a century ago.  They were a victim of the fashion industry, a casualty of the demand for large colorful feathers to adorn women’s hats.  By 1902 Florida’s wild flamingos had been hunted so relentlessly that all the wild flocks were gone.

But over the last 40 years or so, flamingos have been spotted in south Florida with increasing frequency and in growing numbers.  Until very recently, however, scientists did not know whether these flamingos were wild birds returning to recolonize their native habitat, or whether they were escapees from a captive flock at the Hialeah Race Track Park in south Florida.

In 2014, scientists and birders were astonished when more than 140 flamingos were sighted in a central Florida stormwater treatment area!  This 9,000 acre, manmade wetland, which filters nutrients from water flowing into the Everglades, turned out to be a haven for flamingos.

So to find out whether these flamingos were wild birds or merely escaped captives, scientists from Audubon Florida’s Everglades Science Center teamed up with scientists from the National Park Service and others.  They studied the historic record to determine the Florida locations where wild flocks had lived before 1900.  And satellite transmitters attached to some birds showed that they had come to Florida from Mexico and the Bahamas, not from the captive population at the racetrack park. Besides, the birds were showing up in such large numbers  in the Everglades,  in the Big Cypress National Park, and other south Florida wildlife refuges, that they couldn’t all have been escaped individuals from Hialeah.

So it’s now official.  According to the Audubon Society, the large numbers of flamingos being spotted in Florida are not escaped captives; they are heralds of a species in recovery!  And now that they are officially deemed ‘native,’ flamingos can benefit from greater management attention than they already receive under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

So the question is why flamingos are returning to their native Florida after more than a century.  The answer is that Florida has become more flamingo-friendly.  ”Many habitats we believe critical to the success of the species are already protected,” explains Dr. Jerry Lorenz, state director of research for Audubon Florida.  ”Everglades National Park, along with southern Florida’s complex of National Wildlife Refuges are the primary areas that supported flamingos in the past,” he says.  Lorenz calls for an ongoing state and federal partnership “to get the water right for all of Florida’s iconic wading birds.”  That will “translate into a bright future for the American Flamingo in Florida.”

I am hopeful there will be a time when, once again, Florida will be home to hundreds of thousands of flamingos, living in flocks ranging from hundreds to thousands of birds.  I can well imagine feeling just as John J. Audubon did, when he observed hundreds of flamingos in the wild in Florida 1832.  ”Ah!,” he wrote.  ”Reader, could you but know the emotions that then agitated my breast!”

And there is more good news!  Florida’s increasingly flamingo-friendly environment benefits other wading birds as well.  Wood storks, ibises, and roseate spoonbills are also increasing in number.  And wading birds, including flamingos, are growing in number all around the Caribbean–Mexico, Venezuela, the Galapagos, and Caribbean islands.

I dearly love thinking about these tall, extravagantly colored birds, foraging for food, mating, raising their young, living wild and free in Florida’s beautiful marshlands.

As I researched this article, I learned such fascinating facts about flamingos that I would like to share them:

  • The flamingo species that inhabits Florida and the Caribbean is the American Flamingo.  But there are five other flamingo species living in Africa, South America, and southwestern Asia.
  • The flamingo’s eating habits are unusual.  The bird walks slowly about in salty, shallow water, stirring up the muddy bottom. Then the bird leans its long neck down and puts its head in the water–upside down!  The bird scoops up a mouthful of water and then closes its beak.  The flamingo uses its tongue to force the water out through comb-like extensions on the beak that allow the water to escape but keeps the food inside.  amazing beak
  • Flamingos are not picky eaters.  They eat crustaceans, worms, algae, insects, organic debris, plants, and fish.
  • It is the carotenoids in the crustaceans and algae in flamingos’ diet that color the birds’ feathers pink.  Flamingos that are pale or white are malnourished.
  • Flamingos are mostly monogamous.  Once a pair has mated, they work together to build their nest out of mud, stones, sticks, even feathers.  Once the nest is complete, the female lays a single egg.  Parents take turns incubating the egg until it hatches 27-31 days later.  The flamingo chick, which has white or grey feathers, remains in the nest for its first week, and is fed dark red ‘crop milk’ by mother and father alike.  ’Crop milk’ comes from the parents’ upper digestive system and is rich in the fat and protein the chick needs.  After the  chick’s first week, the young bird joins the larger colony and is cared for by many adults, who teach flamingo life skills to the growing chick.
  • Flamingos do not migrate, but are known to fly long distances in response to changing conditions in their shallow water habitat.
  • A flamingo’s lifespan in the wild is 20-30 years.  The birds reach sexual maturity at about age 6.
  • The joint in the middle of the flamingo’s long legs may seem to us comparable to human knees.  But, in fact, a flamingo’s ‘knee’ is much higher on the leg, hidden by the body’s feathers.  The joint that we think of as a knee is actually equivalent to an ankle!  This means the lower half of a flamingo leg is actually a long foot, with the webbing at the bottom equivalent to toes.  Please see the photo below.–April Moore

flamingo chick



5 Responses to “Flamingos Are Returning to Florida!”

  1. James Says:

    Perhaps natural selection has adapted the long foot to raise the bird above the water surface of the marshlands, while they search for delectable morsels below the surface, with those black beaks.

  2. Tony Dorrell Says:

    Hi April,
    This is great news, and I learned a lot.
    Thank you very much.

  3. Patsy Wagner Says:

    How very interesting! I love flamingos!

  4. Monika kienzle Says:

    Thank you for awakening my curiosity, April. While I saw a great variety of exciting large birds like the roseate spoonbills and wood storks in trees and in the water on Sanibel Island the first time I visited Florida in 2001, I now realize what I missed. Images of flamingos were everywhere, but I cannot remember seeing any flocks of them in the wild. What fascinating creatures you just introduced to us.

  5. Jim Cummings Says:

    This is a lovely bit of news! Wonderful to get a feel for these birds, beyond their kitchy reputation.

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