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Flamingos in Florida: Back for good? 101 were counted in the wild in February

For years, the only flamingos in Florida were at zoos, Hialeah Race Track or decorating people’s lawns.

Now, however, 101 wild flamingos have been counted in Florida, months after the September 2023 Hurricane Idalia swept them here from the Yucatan.

From Feb. 18-25, 2024, Audubon Florida organized an American Flamingo survey, in which 40 people participated. They reporting seeing 101 wild flamingos, and survey organizers made their best effort to eliminate duplicate sightings.

The flamingos were reported in three main locations:

  • 50+ were spotted in Florida Bay
  • 18 were counted in the Pine Island area
  • 14 were reported at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Audubon Florida released the results of the survey May 6.

flamingos in florida 2023 23 flamingo pelicans Thomas Lynch Flamingos in Florida: Back for good? 101 were counted in the wild in February
Four flamingos were spotted by Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge during December 2023. Photographer Thomas Lynch captured this image, which allows you to compare the size of the flamingos with the white pelicans and brown pelicans. (Photo: Thomas Lynch)

Even before this flamingo windfall, a group of scientists in 2018 published a paper that contends that the occasional flamingo in Florida is evidence of a recovering species that disappeared from Florida in the early 1900s. They argue flamingos are native to Florida and disappeared because of “plume hunters.”

Will flamingos stay and thrive in Florida?

Audubon Florida’s Director of Research Jerry Lorenz, PhD, said he suspects that 100 flamingos is the floor of this new population, and there could be more that were not counted during the one-week survey.

In a talk to the Audubon Society, Lorenz said he believes that flamingos can stay and thrive in Florida. He says perhaps the efforts to restore water flow in the Everglades and into Florida Bay has created an environment where flamingos may nest and maintain a population. “We are continually monitoring for breeding flamingos,” he said.

The research group analyzed historical evidence of American Flamingos in Florida from narrative accounts and museum records and contrasted that information to sightings of the pink bird.

They concluded that American Flamingos once occurred naturally in large flocks in Florida before disappearing by about 1905. Collected data since 1950 add up to 500 observations of American Flamingos in Florida with an increase in frequency and flock size over time.

Seeing flamingos in Florida now — if you’re lucky

Can you see flamingos?

You will be very lucky to spot these elusive birds, but they have been sighted regularly in several locations into 2024.

I’ll start for obvious reasons in Flamingo, that end-of-the-road spot in Everglades National Park where, despite the name, few visitors have seen a flamingo in a hundred years. Located at the edge of Florida Bay, that area is now where most Florida flamingos have been spotted.

And I saw one there!

I went to Flamingo with my husband and our kayak with a plan to paddle into Snake Bight a shallow wilderness cove east of Flamingo, on Dec. 12, 2023. I confirmed via phone with a ranger in Flamingo that, indeed, as many as 30 flamingos had been hanging out there since Hurricane Idalia.

Snake Bight attracts thousands of wading birds and we’ve paddled there twice in recent years to admire the roseate spoonbills and white pelicans massed there. (A bight is an indentation in the coast, so somebody got a good chuckle, I bet, naming it Snake Bight.)

On arrival at the national park, however, we learned that a strong north wind was coming the next day and it would be a difficult and maybe even dangerous paddle trip. We scrapped the Snake Bight plan and instead kayaked the protected waters of Buttonwood Canal.

But I am a very lucky person. After our paddle, we returned to the Flamingo Visitor Center, where there are big second-story picture windows overlooking Florida Bay.

At the center of those windows was a scope focused on — a flamingo!

A single flamingo had been spotted about a quarter mile out into the bay, just hanging out for several hours. Photographers with strong telephoto lenses managed to capture photos. A ranger was taking a photo with his Iphone through a set of binoculars.

flamingos in florida flamingo in florida bay Flamingos in Florida: Back for good? 101 were counted in the wild in February
Yes, you must look very closely. But that’s a single flamingo visible via a zoom lens from the Flamingo Visitor Center on July 12, 2023. (Photo: David Blasco)

The rangers, volunteers and visitors were giddy with excitement. A ranger explained that flamingos are born white and only turn pink from eating shrimp, so this not-so-pink bird was probably a juvenile. Through the scope, though, the curve of the beak and neck and long legs were an unmistakable profile.

If flamingos become regulars in Florida again, there’s a good chance it will be in Flamingo, where flamingo sightings have occurred in winter and spring regularly over the years.

Since Hurricane Idalia, contsistent reports and photos have also come from the Haulover Canal area in Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. (See the photo at the top of this story.)

For months, birders have been reporting on the rare-bird reporting web pages of seeing flamingos from the Haulover Canal kayak launch at Merritt Island NWR.

Photographer TJ Waller was nice enough to post this information, which includes a map: “Currently they are located near the small island at the end of the Haulover Canal Kayak launch. If you row out there, be responsible and don’t get too close.”

(Audubon Florida’s Director of Research Jerry Lorenz says if the flamingo is aware of you — moving or shuffling its feet — then you’re too close. He suggests you give them at least 200 feet of space.)

If you monitor flamingo sightings on, you’ll see sightings, many confirmed, in a variety of places, including Miami Beach (May 5)!

American Flamingo at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge (Photo: Andy Wraithmell)
American Flamingo at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge (Photo: Andy Wraithmell)

Wild flamingos in Florida that have stuck around

One place where a flamingo has been seen over several years is St. Marks Wildlife Refuge in the Big Bend/Panhandle.

Pinky the flamingo has been spotted regularly since Hurricane Michael in 2018. The bird was joined by six more flamingos after Hurricane Idalia, though there’s no guarantee they’ll remain here.

In Palm Beach County, a flock of flamingos has comes in spring

Over several years, flamingos have returned to a remote wetland in Palm Beach County.

Mark Cook, lead scientist of Everglades Systems Assessment at South Florida Water Management District, said: “They keep coming back every year.”

Flamingos seen in a remote site in Palm Beach County
Even before Idalia, flamingos have been returning to a remote site in Palm Beach County for a decade. (Photo courtesy South Florida Water Management District.)

The number varies: In 2014, 147 were counted. In 2015, there were eight. But then, for several years, the flamingos didn’t return.

In 2022, a few flamingos appeared in their chosen spot and the Audubon chapter in Palm Beach County organized field trips to see them. (On one trip, four flamingos were seen and on a second, two.)

The flamingos have picked a remote location, a water treatment facility in western Palm Beach County, Stormwater Treatment Area 2 (STA2). It’s a 9,000-acre man-made wetland designed to remove excess nutrients from the water supply.

The flamingos only visit the Palm Beach County site in spring, and scientists don’t know where they come from or where they go. (They were not spotted during the March Audubon survey.)

Everything you want to know about flamingos in Florida from Audubon Florida’s Director of Research Jerry Lorenz, PhD.

The flamingo as the Florida State Bird?

In 2024 when the Florida Legislature met, a bill was introduced to make the scrub jay the Florida State Park instead of the mockingbird, which is the state bird of four other states.

Democratic State Senator Tina Polsky entered the scrub jay bill, as she has done in previous sessions. The scrub jay is a pretty blue bird endemic to Florida (that is, found only in Florida.) They are surprisingly friendly birds, often hanging around even when approached. Their scrub habitat in Central Florida is disappearing and under stress from development.

Flamingo Gardens, Davie: Flamingos eat out of your hand. (Photo: David Blasco)
Flamingo Gardens, Davie: Flamingos eat out of your hand. (Photo: David Blasco)

In 2024, however, thanks to the influx of post-hurricane flamingos, bills were introduced to instead make the state bird the flamingo.

Neither of the bird bills advanced and the 2024 session ended. But it’s not over.

Dr. Steven Whitfield, conservation biologist and director of terrestrial and wetlands conservation for the Audubon Society, spoke to the Audubon Everglades in March 2024 and urged members to support the flamingo as the state bird.

“Call your legislators,” he said. “We will try again next year.”

Making flamingos the state bird will bring the bird public attention and raise awarness that flamingos are native to Florida and once breeded here. With conservation efforts, Whitfield says, they might do so again.

And the scrub jay? Whitfied demurred: “I’d love to see the legislature discuss birds more!”

Flamingos at Historic Sunken Gardens in St. Petersburg. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Flamingos at Historic Sunken Gardens in St. Petersburg. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Want to see flamingos up close and easy?

The easy way to see flamingos is at several beautiful and historic Florida gardens.

Flamingo Gardens: Has the biggest tree and the largest collection of native wildlife in Florida. It combines history, beauty, flora and fauna for a fun outing. You can hand-feed the flamingos, located in a beautiful lagoon here.

St. Petersburg Sunken Gardens, St. Petersburg: Starting in 1911, George Turner Sr., an avid gardener, drained a lake in a sinkhole and used the rich soil to plant fruit trees, flowering bushes and Royal Palm trees. This historic garden in downtown St. Petersburg has a flock of flamingos in a lovely setting.

Everglades Wonder Gardens in Bonita Springs: Everglades Wonder Gardens in Bonita Springs has survived since 1936. Now it’s a small but serene spot to enjoy glorious flora, colorful birds, gators and more. It’s located on Old 41 Road, a pocket of Old Florida that is having a renaissance. It is home to two flamingos from an original flock from the 1960s.

Birding resources:

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