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State Wildlife Managers Find Flamingos In Florida Are Just Visiting And Don't Recommend Protecting Them

A flock of wild flamingos appeared in a Palm Beach County stormwater treatment area in 2013.
Tony Pernas
A flock of wild flamingos appeared in a Palm Beach County stormwater treatment area.

Two years after a team of scientists uncovered evidence that American flamingos inhabited the state long before a captured flock was imported to provide scenery at the racetrack at Hialeah Park, state wildlife managers are recommending the iconic birds not be classified as native or protected.

Today’s wild birds are likely just visiting from other places, biologists said in a draft assessment scheduled to be presented at a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission meeting next month.

“The return of this iconic species to the Everglades, Biscayne Bay and the Florida Key is certainly worthy,” the report concludes. But their numbers are so small that requiring protections in Florida would do little to increase global numbers. Lack of data also made it difficult to justify the listing, the report concluded.

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The recommendation disappointed scientists who poured over historic accounts, unearthed old museum specimens and tracked birds to make the case that Florida needs to change the birds’ status. The state has classified flamingos found in its wetlands and beaches as vagrants.

“As a scientist, I understand the biological parameters that FWC had to look at. And under those biological parameters, I can accept the flamingos don't warrant a recovery plan,” said Steven Whitfield, who helped write the request asking for the change and a Zoo Miami biologist. “But as a conservationist, I want to see flamingos return. I think that's something that a lot of people want to see.”

Still, he said, he was glad to see the assessment confirm his team’s findings, and publishedin the journal The Condor, which could ultimately lead to reclassification and better conservation.

“It's the clearest statement from FWC that flamingos are a native species and the clearest statement that they were lost due to over hunting,” he said. “And that really helps correct the record. It shifts the narrative from flamingos don't belong here to flamingos are a natural part of Florida.”

The status of the flamingos had long been a simmering debate among ornithologists and biologists because of the birds’ complicated past.

Historic accounts depicted vast flocks, sometimes in the thousands, inhabiting the Florida Keys and drew bird watchers from around the world.

In 1827, naturalist John Audubon described what he saw near Indian Key: “Ah! reader, could you but know the emotions that then agitated my breast!” he wrote of seeing the birds for the first time. “I thought I had now reached the height of all my expectations, for my voyage to the Floridas was undertaken in a great measure for the purpose of studying these lovely birds in their own beautiful islands.”

By the turn of the century, plume hunters had largely wiped out them out.

Zoo Miami rescued this orphaned young flamingo from the Boca Chica Naval Air Station using a net gun. After nursing the bird back to health, they released it with a tracking device and discovered it stayed in Florida.
Zoo Miami rescued this orphaned young flamingo from the Boca Chica Naval Air Station using a net gun. After nursing the bird back to health, they released it with a tracking device and discovered it stayed in Florida.

But over the last decade, sightings increased. In 2004, a flock appeared in the southern Everglades near Florida Bay. Another appeared in a stormwater treatment area in Palm Beach County. Whitfield and Zoo Miami veterinarian Frank Ridgely were drawn into the debate when the U.S. Navy asked to help rescue an abandoned flamingo chick in a tidal pond near the Boca Chica Naval Air Station.

After nursing the chick back to health, they released it with a tracking band to see where the bird wound up. To their surprise, instead of returning to islands in the Bahamas or Caribbeans, the flamingo stayed in Florida Bay.

That lead Whitfield to museums and archives in search of evidence that flamingos were native to Florida.

“We found these egg specimens which suggested that a breeding population lived here,” he said. “They weren't just occasional visitors. So in terms of population biology, that's the baseline.”

Because conservation management is supposed to return animals to their original state, before humans changed it, he and researchers lobbied the state to protect the birds and come up with a management plan.

“Before we did that study, there wasn't enough scientific information to really make any planning decisions. So we compiled all that information that we got published. And then we asked FWC if this is actually a species that warrants more listing under state threatened species laws,” he explained.

But the state review concluded there still wasn’t enough evidence. While the assessment agreed that flamingos were once native, reviewers found today’s birds were likely just visiting and found no evidence there were breeding in the state now. Those visiting flamingos, they said, represented just a fraction of up to 330,000 flamingos inhabiting the Bahamas and Caribbean and additional protections for birds in Florida would likely not change those numbers.

Having the state recognize the need to study the birds leaves the door open for eventually protecting them, Whitfield said.

“There's never been consistent monitoring throughout the state. And that's something that could really transform what we know about how flamingos are using habitat here, how many of them there are,” he said. “If we're going to think about improving flamingo numbers, that's kind of the starting point.”

Jenny Staletovich is WLRN's Environment Editor. She has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years. Contact Jenny at jstaletovich@wlrnnews.org
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