Do Florida’s Flamingos Really Belong There?

8:05 minutes

portrait of an American Flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber)
American Flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber). Credit: Shutterstock

The flamingo is one of the icons of Florida. But, does it belong there? Steven Whitfield, a conservation biologist at Zoo Miami, jokes that some people say Florida has only two kinds of animals—invasive species and threatened species. Writing in the journal The Condor: Ornithological Applications, Whitfield and colleagues argue that the evidence puts flamingos into the second category: a species native to Florida that has hit hard times, but that is on its way back in some areas.

The researchers examined historical accounts of flamingo sightings, old eggs found in natural history collections, and data from modern flamingo tagging studies. And while some flamingos in Florida may have escaped from zoos and parks, Whitfield says the evidence indicates that more seem to be growing wild or are ranging up from populations in the Yucatan Peninsula.     

[Crows, a bird that’s not bird-brained.]

The question may seem trivial, but the answer has big implications for conservation. If the bird is invasive, conservation biologists would probably want to remove it from Florida land. On the other hand, if it’s a native species that exists in very small numbers, biologists might want to take action to protect and encourage its spread. While the policy decisions are outside of his expertise, Whitefield is working on other methods, including population genetics studies, stable isotope analysis, and tagging birds with satellite transmitters, to try to narrow down the flamingo’s origin.

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Segment Guests

Steven Whitfield

Steven Whitfield is a conservation biologist at Zoo Miami in Miami, Florida.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: When you think Florida, right, you probably think sun, maybe a little golf, certainly spring training– hint, hint– all right up there with other Florida icons, the familiar flamingo. But does the flamingo really belong in the Sunshine State? Are flamingos a native Florida species?

It might seem like a trivial question, but it’s one that has big implications for conservation and how the species is managed. Steven Whitfield is a conservation biologist at Zoo Miami and one of the authors of a paper published this week in the journal, The Condor, Ornithological Applications, about the flamingo in Florida. Welcome to the program.

STEVEN WHITFIELD: Thank you. Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: So why is this a question at all?

STEVEN WHITFIELD: So Florida is an interesting place because we have a large number of introduced species and, at the same time, a large number of species that are threatened with extinction. And for a long time, it’s been unclear what, actually, is happening with flamingos. When you talk to ornithologists, many of them tell you, oh, the flamingos that are seen around Florida are not native. They’re escaped from captive populations. And other people will tell you, well, there used to be flamingos here, large numbers, but they were all hunted out.

So when people were trying to make recommendations of what to do with the flamingos, you basically have two different, really different, management perspectives. Introduced species you try to control to keep them from causing problems in the environment, whereas a threatened species, the ideal management is some kind of population recovery.

IRA FLATOW: So you have to decide whether it’s an introduced species or one that you have to manage for different reasons.

STEVEN WHITFIELD: Exactly. And it was somewhat surprising that, for such an iconic species, this information was not really clear.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. You mentioned, in your paper, you describe historical sightings of the flamingo. It’s sort of like the description of the buffalo roaming across the prairies.

STEVEN WHITFIELD: Yes. Early naturalists in the 1800s described large flocks of hundreds or thousands of flamingos in the Florida Keys.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. And you also looked through museum egg collections. Is that correct?

STEVEN WHITFIELD: Yeah. This is kind of strange, but in the late 1800s, it was a somewhat popular hobby to collect eggs of wild birds. People would collect them, keep data on where they came from. And now, a lot of those specimens are in natural history museums. And so we were able to find four egg collections of flamingo eggs from Florida, which seems to suggest that they weren’t just birds passing by, but they actually were resident birds that nested within the state.

IRA FLATOW: Were they eggs that they might turn into an omelet, also? Or did people eat the birds?

STEVEN WHITFIELD: People definitely ate flamingos. Virtually all of the accounts by early naturalists in the 1800s mentioned either people hunting the flamingos, themselves, or mentioned hunting pressure by locals in the area. So it was pretty clear that what drove the flamingos out of Florida was the hunting pressure by people.

IRA FLATOW: And they had such pretty feathers. I imagine the feathers were useful, too.

STEVEN WHITFIELD: Yeah. In the late 1800s, it became fashionable for women’s hats to have lots of feathers. And a industry of bird hunting in South Florida took off, where people would come in and kill birds by the tens of thousands to sell them for their feathers for fashionable hats.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Wow. Do the flamingos migrate? Now, I would imagine they stay in Florida. It’s a nice temperature there.

STEVEN WHITFIELD: So they’re not typically migratory. You think of migratory birds as birds that go one place for the winter and back for the summer. Flamingos can clearly travel long distances looking for foraging areas. But in places where they nest, they tend to stay around in the area. So they don’t have typical seasonal migratory patterns.

IRA FLATOW: Do people in Florida bird-watch flamingos like they might bird-watch other birds in the lakes and swamps?

STEVEN WHITFIELD: Yes, and this is actually really important for our study. Because in the absence of kind of robust monitoring data for flamingos, we were able to reconstruct the history of flamingos in Florida from around 1950 to the present by using data collected by bird-watchers over that period.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International, talking about the history of flamingos in Florida with Steve Whitfield. You know, we all know about the iconic pink flamingos. Are all flamingos pink?

STEVEN WHITFIELD: Well, there’s six species of flamingos around the world. And they’re all pink or pinkish. Their color is acquired by things they eat. It’s acquired by their diet. So they’re actually– they hatch gray and turn pink over their life.

IRA FLATOW: So what’s the wild status in Florida now? Are people seeing– I know you were saying it’s important that people keep track of them. Are we seeing a rejuvenation of the flamingos?

STEVEN WHITFIELD: Yeah. Over the past 50 years or so, we’re seeing more and more flamingos appear in the state. And there’s a couple ways you can interpret this. One, that we think is unlikely, is that there’s a growing introduced population. The second, which seems more likely, is that flamingos, after they’ve been hunted out for more than 100 years, are now starting to slowly return by dispersing from nearby populations in the Caribbean.

IRA FLATOW: Is that right? What parts of the Caribbean would they be coming from?

STEVEN WHITFIELD: So there’s breeding colonies in the Bahamas, in Cuba, and in Mexico. And in the Yucatan of Mexico, there’s been a banding program, where they put leg bands on flamingos as chicks. And in the past 10 years, there’s been two individual birds that showed up in Florida with leg bands indicating that they came from Mexico. So this is pretty clear evidence that there are wild birds flying into the state, and we probably shouldn’t treat them as a non-native species.

IRA FLATOW: You should not treat them as a non-native species.

STEVEN WHITFIELD: Yeah, there’s not a lot of evidence, actually, that flamingos are escaping from captive populations. There certainly appear to be too many individual birds and group sizes that are too large. The largest group of flamingos we’ve seen in Florida in the past, probably past 100 years, has been 150 individuals. And if someone had 150 flamingos, and they all disappeared, you know, they would probably notice.

IRA FLATOW: So how far north do you find flamingos?

STEVEN WHITFIELD: So occasionally, they’ll get up into northern Florida. But almost all of the flamingo observations from within Florida are from the very southern part of the state.

IRA FLATOW: You’re using genetic testing or other studies that can help settle this question about the invasive or threatened species?

STEVEN WHITFIELD: Yeah. So we’re trying to do a number of approaches to figure out where the flamingos are coming from. One is by doing genetic testing of the flamingos here in Florida with flamingos from all around the Caribbean. We’re also working on some techniques using stable isotope ecology, which can help distinguish wild versus captive birds, and satellite telemetry to try to see where the flamingos are coming from.

IRA FLATOW: Well, they’re such iconic birds about Florida, I imagine there must be a lot of interest in knowing more about them.

STEVEN WHITFIELD: There certainly is, but it’s, so far, somewhat of a mystery.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, well, thank you for helping us talk about that mystery, Steven.

STEVEN WHITFIELD: All right. Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Steven Whitfield, conservation biologist at the Zoo Miami, at Zoo Miami in Miami, Florida.

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