Florida’s Invaders: Flamingo

The Pink Flamingo is, of course, the ubiquitous symbol of Florida, found on front lawns all over the state. Despite this, there are not actually any wild Flamingos in Florida. Or at least there haven’t been for a long time—and now their presence raises the issue of just what is a “native” species and an “invader”.

The Flamingo may be the most immediately-recognizable bird in the world. Almost as tall as a human, they have long legs, odd curved beaks, and a bright pink color. There are six species of Flamingo found across the world. Four of these are found in South America, and the Caribbean, and two are found in Africa, southern Europe, and southern Asia. The group has undergone some confusing taxonomic changes in just the past few years. For decades, all of the Flamingos had been placed together in the genus Phoenicopterus, and it was believed they were related to the Ibis and Spoonbill—though some authorities argued that they were more closely related to Ducks. In 2014, new studies concluded that they were neither: the Flamingos were most closely related to the Grebes, which in turn were distant relatives of the Pigeons. Further, the single Flamingo genus was split into three. The new genus Phoenicoparrus contained the Andean Flamingo and the James Flamingo, both from South America, and the Lesser Flamingo from Africa was moved to its own genus Phoeniconaias. Remaining in Phoenicopterus were the Asian/African Greater Flamingo, the Chilean Flamingo from South America, and the American Flamingo, Phoenicopterus ruber, which ranges from Central America up to the Caribbean.

All of the Flamingos are long-legged waders that live together in huge flocks. They feed by hanging their head upside down, sucking mud and water into their curved beaks (often using their feet to stir up the muck and mud) and using their tongues to push it out through bristles inside their mouth called “lamellae”. These filter out edibles like algae, brine shrimp, and bacteria. As these items are digested, they produce the pigment carotene, which the birds then incorporate into their feathers to produce their bright pink colors. In the wild, this serves as a visual signal for breeding: the better-fed the bird is, the more intense his color will be. In captivity, however, Flamingos do not obtain as much carotene from their food as they would in the wild, and so are typically paler and less intense than their wild cousins. Wild Flamingos prefer to feed in warm shallow ponds where most other aquatic life cannot survive, but where the brine shrimp and algae that they feed on thrive. To deal with the higher salt level in these evaporation ponds, the birds have special glands in their nose. Although Flamingos are non-migratory, the flocks often move around from one pond to another.

During the spring breeding season, each pair builds a nest in the mudflats that looks like a little volcano—cone-shaped with a depression on top where the single egg is laid. Both parents incubate the nest for about 30 days. Just before hatching, the unborn chick will begin chirping from inside the egg, and this is how the parents learn to recognize their particular chick out of the thousands in the flock. The hatchling is fed from a protein-rich “milk” secreted from the digestive tract of both parents. When the chick begins to leave the nest at about two weeks, it will join into large groups with other chicks, called a “creche”, where each continues to be fed by its parents. The young birds are a dull grey color—they do not begin to turn their usual pink until they begin feeding on the algae and shrimp. They reach maturity in about 6 years. Zoo Flamingos have lived as long as 80 years.

When settlers from Europe arrived in Florida, they found scattered flocks of the big pink birds: apparently Florida was the northernmost extent of their range at the time. John James Audubon recorded seeing a wild flock in the Keys in 1832, and there is an account of Flamingos sitting on their nests in 1901. But at this time the trade in bird feathers—used for women’s hats—was intense, and Florida’s entire population of Flamingos was apparently wiped out. From the 1920s to the 50s, Flamingos were imported from the Caribbean for the tourists. When occasional birds were seen in the wild, it was presumed that they were just escapees from captive flocks. And some reported sightings were dismissed as likely mistaken identifications of the Roseate Spoonbill.

But then, in the 2010s, it began to appear as if maybe the wild Flamingos were returning to their ancestral Florida homes. Several birds were found in the Everglades that had been banded as youngsters in the wild in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. In 2013, a group of several dozen Flamingos appeared in a water treatment area near Boca Raton, which swelled to almost 150 birds the next year and then dropped to just a dozen the year after that. Occasional new sightings of wild Flamingos have occurred since then, as far north as Tampa Bay.

While some of these are undoubtedly escapees from captive flocks or refugees blown in by storms or hurricanes, some of them are clearly wild birds that have arrived here from somewhere else and have decided to stay—a possibility which has excited state wildlife officials, who have begun to study the birds to learn more about them. Legally, Florida classes the American Flamingo as “non-native”, but present in the state as an “erratic”. That classification may change if the bird actually becomes established here, again.

But so far there is one crucial factor that is missing: Flamingos require the presence of a large fellow flock in order to stimulate breeding (captive colonies often use mirrors), and since there are as yet no large wild flocks in Florida, there has been no indication that any of the recent introductions have been reproducing, and therefore they are incapable of establishing a permanent colony. Nevertheless, state wildlife officials are hopeful that more wild birds will migrate here and reach a breeding density, and that, after a century of absence, there is now a chance that the American Flamingo may finally be returning home to Florida.

 

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