Days after Hurricane Idalia blew through Florida in August, people began sighting flamingos in unusual spots. The birds were spotted as far north as Lake Michigan beach, Wisconsin. One of those fly-ins was “Peaches,” who was found in deep water off Florida’s Gulf Coast.
Now the bring-pink bird is being tracked by a pair of researchers searching to see if wild, breeding populations may return to the state since they went locally extinct in the early 1900s.
The adult bird, whose sex researchers have yet to determine, was floating in deep water, likely exhausted from flying a long distance with feathers that were getting waterlogged. Peaches was then scooped up in a net and brought to the Seaside Seabird Sanctuary for rehabilitation, said Frank Ridgley, Zoo Miami’s head of conservation and research.
“If a flamingo was strong and healthy, you would never be able to do that,” Ridgley said.
After exceeding everyone’s expectations, Peaches made a full recovery and was released just days later. That’s when Ridgley at Zoo Miami partnered with Audubon Florida’s Dr. Jerry Lorenz to track the bird.
Lorenz, a master bander who specializes in spoonbills, and Ridgley, who works at a Zoo where everything from hummingbirds to ostriches are banded, combined their expertise. Lorenz was able to have the paperwork to add American Flamingos to his license expedited by the United States Geological Survey’s bird banding laboratory.
“A bunch of people worked really hard and very fast to make this happen because we realized the importance,” Ridgley said.
After the Seabird Sanctuary agreed, Ridgley and Lorenz flew to Tampa and fitted Peaches with a satellite geo-locator and identification band on Sept. 8.
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Peaches holds the distinction of being only the second American Flamingo ever to be tagged by the United States.
The alphanumerical code and color combination given to Peaches was created by Ridgley and his team in 2015 when they banded the first-ever American Flamingo, “Conchy,” in the United States. At first, Ridgley turned to other bird-banding experts for advice on what kind of bands to order.
“Everyone said, ‘Well, there is no standard because no one’s banded flamingos in the United States,’” he said. “And they said right now Mexico and Cuba were having a disagreement about some of their banding colors and conditions… But I wasn’t that confident about international relations and resolving conflict between Cuba and Mexico.”
So, Ridgley chose something entirely unique and recognizable. The bird is now easily recognized by a bright blue band and white lettering that spells “US02.”
Peaches is currently exploring the areas around St. Petersburg and down to Sarasota, according to Ridgley. Researchers don’t expect the flamingo to venture further for a couple weeks.
Tracking this bird will tell researchers a few things. It might provide more information to the pool of evidence on the tie between flamingos across the Yucatan Peninsula and the Caribbean and those coming to Florida in increasing numbers during the winter.
But if Peaches decides to stay, and happens to find other birds of their kind along the way, will Florida have a wild, breeding population of flamingos for the first time since they disappeared from the state?
“There’s more questions than answers at the moment,” Julie Wraithmell, the executive director of Audubon Florida said. “That makes it a really exciting time to be a bird scientist.”
The case of the disappearing bird
These striking birds on stilt legs used to roam the Florida peninsula in flocks of thousands. But after the millinery trade’s plume hunters largely wiped them out by the turn of the 18th century, sightings have become exceedingly rare.
“As a result of that practice, it decimated most of our wading birds and some of them still haven’t recovered fully, like the little blue heron and wood storks,” Ridgley said. “Flamingos were, like, forgotten as a wading bird for the United States.”
Conventional wisdom from the last 50 years was that flamingos spotted in Florida were likely escapees from private flocks, like the one at the Hialeah Park racetrack. For years, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission marked the American Flamingo as a non-native species on their website.
“The status determination was not regarding whether the species was ever native to Florida or not, but whether the birds present in the state occurred naturally or were the result of human-introduced and captive populations,” Lisa Thompson, FWC’s Habitat and Species Conservation spokesperson said. “A growing body of evidence over the years suggests that at least some American flamingos living in Florida have arrived on their own from outside of the state.”
State officials pushed back against flamingo tracking efforts because they prohibit the release of non-native species. That’s when Ridgley and his research team at Zoo Miami launched a historical record deep-dive.
Dr. Steven Whitfield, the Zoo Miami researcher who spearheaded the effort, dug up several first-hand accounts of settlers, explorers and naturalists sighting flocks of flamingos numbering hundreds to thousands of individuals, including one description of a nesting site and four egg specimens marked as collected from Florida.
A long history
Settlers learned Flamingo-hunting techniques from Indigenous Floridians.
“There were accounts of people harvesting flamingos up in the Upper Florida Keys and then taking them down to Key West, where they would sell them,” Ridgley said. “There was a story of some influential people in Key West where they talked about having flamingo at dinner and that young flamingo tasted the best.”
These accounts, along with findings about flamingo sightings increasing in recent years, were compiled in a scientific article published in The Condor, the top-ranked journal in the field of Ornithology, according to JSTOR.
One of the most notable documentations of flamingos in Florida comes from John James Audubon, the famous — and controversial — naturalist and ornithologist. His legacy is being reexamined in recent years because he enslaved Black people and wrote critically about emancipation. Audubon’s seminal work The Birds of America comprises 435 life-sized bird renderings, including the American Flamingo.
“When he went to make his now famous drawing of a flamingo, he wrote in his notes leading up to it,” Ridgley said. “He didn’t say ‘oh, I have to go to Cuba, I have to go to the Bahamas, I have to go to Mexico.’ He’s like ‘oh, I’m just going to go down to the Florida Keys where flamingos live and I’ll draw one there.”
It wasn’t until 2018 that FWC published a public webpage acknowledging flamingos’ native status, which cites Whitfield’s findings. Despite that thought, FWC rejected a proposal in 2021 that would have granted American Flamingos protective status. They are federally protected by the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
That historical investigation was part of a much broader look at Flamingos in Florida.
“It actually started, of all places, in an invasive species meeting,” Ridgley said.
While he and a group of biologists, National Park Service officials, indigenous community leaders, and major land stakeholders were having lunch during an Everglades Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area (ECISMA) meeting, someone pulled up a photo of some flamingos in the Florida Bay with young feathering. The birds didn’t seem old enough to have just flown in and no one knew where they came from.
So, Ridgley’s team at Zoo Miami partnered with the National Park Service to launch a research incentive that developed into what is now known as the Florida Flamingos Working Group. The group now consists of experts from Mexico, Cuba, the Bahamas and Florida who are all trying to address the research gaps in Flamingo conservation and recovery work.
They’re looking into flamingos travel patterns across breeding populations found in the Caribbean and Yucatan Peninsula with banding efforts but also conducting a genetic study. The genetic study includes DNA samples from the museum egg specimens Whitfield found and genetic samples from modern-day populations. With those comparisons, the Working Group hopes to see if there was ever a genetically-distinct Florida flamingo and if that flamingo can be traced back to modern Caribbean and Yucatan flocks.
“We don’t want to just put all our eggs in one basket,” Ridgley said. “We want to look at multiple things, answer those research gaps, fill in the blanks so that we can come up with a multifaceted plan, a practical plan, one that we think has benefits for the species, for people, for even the economy.”
If the birds were to come back and inhabit the state permanently again, Ridgley says a regularly spotted flock could have huge implications for ecotourism in the state.
“The good thing is we think most of the areas that flamingos would use as habitat are already protected,” he said. “You know, Everglades National Park, Biscayne Bay, some areas along the coastlines of preserves and refuges.”
As researchers work diligently to uncover information about a species that’s not only iconic to Florida, but also an important part of the state’s history, they’re hopeful Floridians will get to see them return.
“I think everybody’s surfing the pink wave and, gosh, hopefully they’ll find a happy home here and we’ll be able to enjoy them for years to come,” Wraithmell said.