Wild flamingos gather near Treasure Island, Fla., in 2023. Holley Short/Audubon Florida

MERRITT ISLAND, Fla. — When Keith Ramos heard a small flock of American flamingos had landed last fall at the nature preserve he oversees off Florida’s Atlantic coast, he rushed to get a once-in-a-lifetime glimpse of the gangly pink birds in the wild.

“I ran over there, and of course, they were gone,” said Ramos, the manager of Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, where a flamingo sighting had last been recorded in 1992. “I figured I missed my chance forever.”

But a month later, they were spotted again. Then a separate and larger flock was seen in the nearby Mosquito Lagoon. The birds seemed to be right at home, preening their blush-colored feathers and grazing on shrimp near a sandbar.

Indeed, in the past nine months, flamingos have appeared throughout Florida in places where they haven’t been seen in decades – sightings scientists hope to mark the return of one of the state’s most celebrated symbols.

They’ve been photographed while taking a leisurely swim within eyeshot of office buildings in Tampa Bay, hanging out with pelicans near Sanibel Island and sharing a sandspit with great blue herons just a few miles from Kennedy Space Center.

Researchers believe the new arrivals blew in with Hurricane Idalia last August, probably from Mexico or the Bahamas, where conservation efforts over the past 50 years have helped flamingo populations recover from near extinction. It wasn’t the first time a powerful storm swept the birds to Florida. But in most of those instances, the flamingos left after only a few days.

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This time, they stayed.

Earlier this month, Audubon Florida released the results of a February field study that documented 101 wild American flamingo sightings around the state – with more people reporting seeing them in a single week than at any other point in time since the early 1900s.

The findings have excited birders and renewed a debate about whether flamingos should be classified as a threatened species by the state Wildlife Commission – a measure scientists say could help ensure Florida gets its pink back for good.

Jerry Lorenz, Audubon Florida’s director of research, said the 101 flamingos spotted during the survey represent “the floor of this new population,” and that there are likely more. He said the return of flamingos is an encouraging sign that the birds are adapting even while rising sea levels threaten their habitats.

“The fact that they’re still hanging out in Florida, that they’re staying, gives us reason for optimism,” Lorenz said.

‘IT STARTED WITH FLAMINGOS’

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Flamingos are intertwined more closely with Florida’s iconography than perhaps any animal except the alligator.

Images of the bird of unexpected proportions – adults stand, on average, five feet tall – appear on Lotto tickets, cocktail straws and tropical Christmas decorations. Hundreds of businesses have chosen to stake their success on the fluorescent fowl, from Flamingo AC & Heating Services in the Tampa Bay area to Flamingo Coffee Roasters in Jacksonville.

Wild flamingos gather near Tampa, in the fall of 2023, after Hurricane Idalia hit Florida. Jeff Liechty/Audubon Florida

“I think it’s because they’re so visually stunning,” said Rick Kilby, an author who has spent years documenting the vestiges of “Old Florida,” the age before theme parks and interstates. “The brilliant salmon pink color, the black beak, it’s almost like somebody painted them.”

Nearly 200 years ago, somebody did paint them – the naturalist John James Audubon, who traveled to the Florida Keys in 1832 “for the purpose of studying these lovely birds in their own beautiful islands.”

He also wanted to shoot one, but failed many times, and ended up having to rely on someone else’s dead bird for the details he used to draw “Plate 431: American Flamingo” for his book “The Birds of America.”

Flamingos flourished in Florida in the 1800s, with colonies of more than 1,000 living around the Keys and the Everglades. Researchers say shallow, salty mud flats in Florida Bay between the Keys and the mainland suit their feeding and nesting preferences.

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But the plume trade all but wiped them out. Historic reports indicate a single hunter could kill upward of 100 flamingos a day, plucking their feathers to be sold for women’s hats and selling the rest for meat. Millions of wading birds such as flamingos and egrets were slaughtered each year until the landmark federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act was signed into law in 1918, prohibiting their capture and killing.

By then it was too late for flamingos in Florida. But while the birds themselves were disappearing, the images of them published in books such as Audubon’s tome and works of fiction continued to grab the attention of the American public.

Then came the land boom. Impresarios set up roadside attractions for curious out-of-towners to see a flamingo up close. In the 1930s, Hialeah Park Race Track in Miami-Dade County imported 140 flamingos from Cuba to dot the grounds. The famous birds even inspired literature, with American writer and conservationist Kirk Munroe penning an adventure novel titled “The Flamingo Feather.”

“He wanted to sell exotic tales about Florida, and flamingos were part of that,” Kilby said.

Even as flamingo sightings in the Florida wild dwindled to zero by the mid-20th century, the association between the Sunshine State and the rose-hued bird grew. Hotels and motels were named after flamingos. They were featured on postcards, souvenir snow globes and keychains. In the 1980s, they played a starring role in the opening credits of “Miami Vice.”

“That show was a high water mark for visual culture during that time period,” Kilby said. “And it started with flamingos.”

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A BIRD NAMES CONCHY

Despite the fanfare, for years Florida officials rejected the idea that flamingos were native to the state, in part because so few were seen during the past 140 years. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission concluded those that were seen in the wild were visitors from the Caribbean or zoo escapees.

Then Conchy was rescued from an airport runway in the Florida Keys.

The bird – named after the Conch Republic, the nickname for Key West – was discovered alongside two other flamingos wading and feeding in shallow water near the Naval Air Station in Boca Chica in 2015. Efforts to shoo them away from the edges of the fighter jet runways worked for the two older birds, but Conchy (pronounced ‘conky’) wouldn’t leave.

Biologists at Zoo Miami eventually captured the young bird, and before releasing him in the Everglades, attached a transmitter and ID tag to the bird.

Conchy’s habits and movements taught researchers more about flamingos in Florida in two years than was known in the previous 100 years.

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He stayed in Florida, rather than fly to Mexico or the Bahamas, where researchers assumed he’d come from. They learned that he preferred to stay mostly on land and in shallow mud flats. He foraged for food in salty puddles where small fish, shrimp and other tiny crustaceans live. He moved around more in the afternoon and early evening, and he traveled longer distances in the summer.

Wild flamingos near Tampa in the fall of 2023, after Hurricane Idalia tore through the region. Jeff Liechty/Audubon Florida

When Category 4 Hurricane Irma made landfall in the Keys in September of 2017 and thrashed Florida Bay, researchers worried that he had been killed.

But a few days later, his transmitter started beeping again, and people reported seeing a flamingo with metal tags around his legs. After spending two years on his own, Conchy was photographed with a group of four other flamingos in the Bay

His transmitter has since failed for good, but researchers think Conchy is most likely still alive and could be for decades. One of the oldest wild flamingos on record is estimated to have been nearly 50 years old.

“I have high hopes that he’s still out there,” said Steven Whitfield, a wildlife biologist who helped tag Conchy.

PINK RETURN

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Bolstered by the data collected from Conchy’s wanderings, an informal group of scientists and researchers dubbed the Florida Flamingo Working Group began mounting a case to classify the birds as a native species.

They presented new information, including photos of flamingo eggs found in the Keys in the 1880s, showing that the birds had nested in Florida in the past.

But while the evidence convinced the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to change the designation of the birds from nonnative to native on its website, commissioners in 2021 rejected the group’s proposal to list flamingos as a threatened species in the state.

The scientists consider that designation key; it requires the state to devise a management plan and help fund flamingo studies.

Despite billions of dollars spent on restoring the Everglades and Florida Bay, impacts on flamingos and other birds from rising sea levels and climate change “are likely to occur,” according to a state report from 2021.

But the report also notes that flamingos could benefit from some of those changes. Florida’s other large pink bird, the roseate spoonbill, is abandoning the Everglades and moving farther north because traditional feeding and nesting grounds are frequently inundated.

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Researchers speculate that flamingos – with their longer legs and appetite for saltier water – are possibly better adapted to the changes.

The state agreed to monitor the birds, but so far, that hasn’t happened, Whitfield said. In a statement, the Wildlife Commission said it doesn’t monitor flamingos because they are not listed as a threatened species. The agency noted a 2021 state report that concludes the American flamingo should not be classified as a threatened species in Florida because the state has “an extremely small fraction” of the global population.

Even without a special state designation, flamingo fever is once again taking hold in Florida.

A Republican lawmaker introduced a bill to replace mockingbirds with flamingos as the state bird earlier this year. The measure ultimately failed, after two Democratic lawmakers said that while they were fans of flamingos, they thought it best to do a survey first and see what other native species the public might want to consider, including blue Florida scrub jays.

After Idalia, birdwatchers began recording their flamingo sightings online, and tourists have submitted their own glimpses on eBird.

Mitch Cruzan is one of them. He traveled from Oregon to Florida on a birdwatching trip to Merritt Island in March. In torrential rain, he saw the birds feeding and swooping their heads back and forth in the water.

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“It was a kind of classic flamingo moment,” said Cruzan, a biology professor at Portland State University.

Lots of other people are looking for those moments, too. Merritt Island refuge staff said visitors to the area are up 20% over the past year, which they believe is mostly from flamingo sightseers.

The Florida Flamingo Working Group members want to capitalize on that interest to keep flamingos at the top of mind for state officials as they seek funding for studying the birds with an eye toward keeping them in the state permanently.

“It’s time for flamingos to come home,” Whitfield said. “They belong here.”

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