National Geographic: Florida’s flamingos disappeared decades ago. That may soon change.

View story on National Geographic.

When a wild flamingo showed up between two air strips at the Naval Air Station Key West on the southern tip of Florida in 2015, pilots feared a collision every day the bird stuck around.

Flamingos usually choose habitats as far from humans as possible. But not this one. Nothing airport employees did could spook the light-pink bird into leaving its unusual choice of habitat. It eventually took a team of experts to capture and remove the animal, which they dubbed Conchy. The male American, or Caribbean, flamingo was taken to Zoo Miami, where researchers discovered he was seriously ill, inflicted with liver damage from feeding in a polluted body of water near a restaurant.

Of the six species of flamingo worldwide, only the American flamingo is native to North America. Populations of the four-foot-tall birds are not in danger of extinction, with an increasing population of 200,000 throughout the Caribbean, South America, and Mexico, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature

Conchy fully recovered. But when researchers attempted to release him, he stirred up more controversy: Florida initially blocked his release on the grounds that flamingos are not native to the state, as the species hasn’t had a breeding population there since the late 1800s. (Read more about the surprising origin of Florida’s flamingos.)

Scientists then presented evidence of two flamingos that had previously turned up in Florida Bay after being banded as chicks in Mexico—showing that, though rare, flamingos still naturally migrate to Florida from the Caribbean. The state reversed its decision, allowing for Conchy’s release in 2015. Researchers attached a GPS tracker to the bird, excited to track his movements.

Conchy defied their predictions: For more than two years, the bird didn’t leave Florida. To Zoo Miami wildlife biologist Steven Whitfield, Conchy’s decision to stay in the state provided evidence that Florida’s wading bird habitat—where flamingos have been considered only temporary residents for the past hundred years—could actually sustain wild American flamingos year-round.

“We were enormously surprised,” Whitfield says. “That was a good sign that there’s food out there, at least for small groups, for a long time.”

Over the past decade, Florida flamingo sightings have steadily increased, and there are thought to be fewer than a thousand in the state, all presumably temporary visitors. That data, combined with Conchy’s decision to stay put, suggest that the stage is set for the return of permanent flamingo populations in Florida, he says.

In 2018, Florida updated the flamingo’s status to native. Yet in May 2021, Florida wildlife agencies declined to grant the state’s flamingos certain protections, such as management and monitoring, with the rationale that existing conservation efforts in South Florida, particularly in the Everglades, is sufficient.

Felicity Arengo, the Americas coordinator for the IUCN’s Flamingo Specialist Group, who advised Florida on its decision, told National Geographic that agencies could change their mind if enough permanent flamingos are documented in the state.

“It wasn’t necessarily a death sentence,” says Arengo, associate director at the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at New York’s American Museum of Natural History. “Things are evolving.”

Setting the stage for a return

By the end of the late 19th century, overhunting for meat, eggs, and the feather industry had virtually wiped out the thousands of American flamingos that once lived in Florida Bay and the Florida Keys.

Nonetheless, flamingos have remained a celebrated species in the state. Tourists flock through the Flamingo Visitor Center when visiting Everglades National Park, and anyone buying a Florida Lottery ticket is greeted by the state lotto’s grinning cartoon flamingo logo.

Whitfield and other flamingo enthusiasts are determined to do everything they can to encourage the bird to return to its native habitat. That includes collaring Florida flamingos and tracking them on their migratory routes, exploring how habitat alterations have impacted flamingo nesting opportunities, and using satellite imagery to detect habitat conditions and potential nesting sites.

Whitfield also formed a Florida Flamingo Working Group with local and international experts, hoping to gather as much missing data as possible so that if conditions change and Florida does gain a new breeding population, their research can inform future state decisions.

And there are a few reasons why he thinks they’ll be back.

For one, Florida—at the most northern extent of the American flamingo’s range—might become increasingly more attractive to flamingos looking for foraging and breeding grounds due to habitat loss and predicted sea-level rise in the Caribbean, Whitfield says.

Secondly, conservation efforts in the Everglades have already improved habitat quality for wading birds, and may encourage flamingos to settle once more in South Florida, he adds.

In January, the Biden administration announced a billion-dollar Everglades restoration project, which brings the total to $2.5 billion being invested in the 1.5-million-acre wetland between 2019 and 2023.

Healing the Everglades

Flamingos gobble tiny crustaceans by sloshing their beaks into shallow waters, a behavior that also benefits the ecosystem by filtering out nutrients and microorganisms and oxygenating the water. Like all wetland creatures, flamingos need well-aerated, clean water to thrive, and their presence indicates a healthy environment.

However, agricultural runoff has polluted much of South Florida’s ecosystems with harmful nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen, which promote the growth of algae that in turn consume oxygen from the water.

Legislation to limit water pollution seems to be working, Whitfield says. In the past 30 years, more than 6,000 metric tons of phosphorus have been blocked from entering the Everglades, due to a state mandate that Florida farms reduce the nutrient runoff by 25 percent, Whitfield notes.

Scientists’ long-term goal is to restore the ecosystem’s hydrology, so that fresh water continually flows throughout the Everglades year-round. That will boost prey populations, such as shrimp and small fish, and plant life, which could in turn draw flamingos in large enough numbers to nest. American flamingos can travel up to 400 miles a day and as far as 2,000 miles from their winter breeding sites in search of food.

There are anecdotal signs of wildlife returning to South Florida, too. In 2021, scientists observed noteworthy increases in American crocodile and American alligator nests, says Mark Cook, lead scientist for the South Florida Water Management District, which manages water resources in 16 counties, from Orlando to the Florida Keys. 

His team counted nearly 90,000 nests of various wading bird species in the southern Everglades in 2021, which he called an “absolutely incredible” number and one of the “most successful nesting years since the 1940s.”

If flamingos do come back, Whitfield and colleagues expect the state would consider listing the American flamingo as a protected species.

“Flamingo recovery is entirely possible,” Whitfield says. “Because it’s been done before, and that’s in countries with a lot less resources than the U.S.”

Arengo, who now also advises Whitfield’s flamingo working group, agrees that restoring hydrology, protecting habitat, and eliminating human disturbance have been successful strategies for bringing American flamingos back in areas where they were historically driven out.

In Conchy’s footsteps

The working group also has eyes on the ground in several citizen scientists, such as Garl Harrold, who operates Garl’s Coastal Kayaking in Homestead, Florida, and was the first to spot a flamingo banded in Mexico, in Everglades National Park in 2002. He has possibly racked up the most Florida flamingo sightings in recent years, going from reporting a few flamingo sightings annually, to now near-monthly encounters.

“When I first saw them, people told me that I was seeing roseate spoonbills,” Harrold says. “I’m like, No, I know the difference.” (Read how flamingos make friends for life.)

Typically, he sees the birds in pairs, but once he saw a flamboyance of 16.

“I am out nearly every day, so I’m the most likely to see flamingos when they are around,” Harrold says. (Read about Flamingo Bob, a poster bird for conservation.)

Such public sightings, often posted online and on citizen-science apps, will help Whitfield and colleagues track how many Florida flamingos stick around. Whitfield also hopes to take blood and feather samples of some of the birds to determine their origins.

As for Conchy, his signal was lost in 2017 during Hurricane Irma. It’s possible he survived—American flamingos can live up to 50 years—and either finally left the state or else is hiding in remote parts of South Florida, Whitfield says. Satellite imagery could help locate these potentially undercounted wild populations, he adds.

“Either the number of flamingos in Florida is increasing, or there’s been a lot more here all along,” he says, “and they’ve just been under our radar.”