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In Florida, Flamingos Aren't Making A Comeback — They've Been There All Along


Staying in the natural world for a few more minutes, we now have a story about flamingos getting back to their roots. There used to be wild flamingos in Florida until people hunted them, first for food and later for their feathers. The conventional wisdom and official state position was that the flamingos never came back. But that may change soon. From member station WLRN, Nancy Klingener reports.

NANCY KLINGENER, BYLINE: After hunting was outlawed, flamingos didn't come back like the egrets or bright pink roseate spoonbills that you see all the time in the Everglades. Those are the birds that Audubon Florida studies. Pete Frezza works for Audubon, and he was out doing research in the Everglades in 2004.

PETE FREZZA: On the horizon was this huge line of pink. And we were like, oh, my gosh.

KLINGENER: As they got closer to these birds, they realized...

FREZZA: Those are not spoonbills. They were too big. And we're like, those are flamingos.

KLINGENER: Sixty-four flamingos. This didn't change the official story that flamingos had been wiped out in Florida and most of the birds people were seeing were probably escapees from a captive flock. Ten years later, a flock of 150 flamingos showed up in Palm Beach County. And then there was Conchy. Conchy is a flamingo that started hanging around Naval Air Station Key West in the fall of 2015. If a big bird gets sucked into an engine, it can crash a $70 million jet. So the Navy scares them away with fireworks or shotgun blasts.

STEVEN WHITFIELD: Conchy would not leave. They couldn't harass him away.

KLINGENER: Steven Whitfield is a conservation biologist at Zoo Miami. The zoo had been looking for a flamingo. They wanted to put a satellite tracker on it and see where all these flamingos were coming from, so they captured Conchy. But then there was a problem.

WHITFIELD: The state told us that we couldn't release non-native species. So that's when we started digging into the question of, are they really non-native?

KLINGENER: The zoo got permission to release Conchy after pointing to two separate flamingo sightings in the Everglades, both of birds that had been banded as chicks in the Yucatan. So they couldn't be escapees from a captive flock. And Whitfield pulled together a team of researchers to find out if flamingos belong here after all.

JERRY LORENZ: When Steven brought us all together, the first words out of my mouth were, you know, those are just escapees. Why are we even talking about this?

KLINGENER: Jerry Lorenz is the research director for Audubon Florida. He says when he dug into the data, he realized something. The story he'd been taught about flamingos in Florida was wrong.

LORENZ: There is no evidence at all that any of these birds that we're observing in Florida Bay are escapees - none.

KLINGENER: The researchers looked at historical accounts, including one from John James Audubon himself, about flamingos in South Florida. Steven Whitfield found four specimens in museums that were labeled as flamingo eggs collected in Florida.

WHITFIELD: In the late 1800s, collecting wild bird eggs was a weird but somewhat popular hobby. I think it was kind of like "Pokemon Go" but real.

KLINGENER: Combining that historical data with increasing reports of flamingo sightings from birders led to their conclusion, published in the research journal The Condor last month. Flamingos are in Florida - and they've been here all along. As Jerry Lorenz puts it...

LORENZ: They're supposed to be here. They're not escapees. We have to treat them like a native species.

KLINGENER: One flamingo has already proved that he at least is a full-time Florida resident. That would be Conchy, the bird from the Key West Navy base. The satellite tracker showed Conchy's movements for almost two years. He spent the entire time in Florida Bay.

For NPR News, I'm Nancy Klingener in Key West, Fla.


Nancy Klingener covers the Florida Keys for WLRN. Since moving to South Florida in 1989, she has worked for the Miami Herald, Solares Hill newspaper and the Monroe County Public Library.