Observers attribute growing flamingo sightings in Florida to wetland restoration

American Flamingos (Phoenicopterus rubor) may be returning naturally to Florida after being eradicated more than a century ago. Photo credit: J. Patterson
Augusta Dwyer
11 April 2018

BONN, Germany (Landscape News) — Sightings of the American Flamingo (Phoenicopterus rubor) are on the increase in Florida, where its image is so popular it graces the state’s lottery tickets.

Yet controversy surrounds the question of whether the flamingos are truly native to the southern U.S. state or escapees from captive flocks.

A paper recently published in The Condor: Ornithological Applications makes a compelling argument that the elegant pink wader should in fact be considered part of Florida’s natural fauna.

“Recent population increases in Florida are best explained by immigration from expanding nesting populations in the Caribbean, rather than increased numbers of escaped individuals,” the paper states.

Resolving the long-standing controversy over the status and origin of Florida’s flamingos will help develop appropriate evidence-based management strategies for this species—a culturally significant component of Florida’s avifauna.”

According to Steven Whitfield, a conservation and research specialist at Zoo Miami and lead author of the study, flamingos have been arriving in Florida from wild populations in the Caribbean.

“They can clearly travel long distances for food,” he said. “So what it looks like is that they are coming here to forage.

“We definitely know from some of the research that has been done around the Caribbean and even with other species of flamingos that when food becomes scarce they will go to other places looking for food,” he added.

Whitfield and a team including researchers from Audubon’s Everglades Science Center in Florida spent more than two years studying data from historical records, naturalists’ notes, egg collections in natural history museums, and reports from citizen scientists.

“We show definitive evidence for 19th-century flamingo flocks numbering hundreds to thousands of individuals, with large flocks recorded through the year,” their paper says. By around 1900, however, those flocks had been effectively extirpated by hunting and the plume trade.

Yet over the past several decades, flamingos have been seen in pairs and small groups in and around the Everglades and the Florida keys, the scientists said. A large flock of 147 flamingos was spotted at a water treatment facility in the Everglades in 2014. In some cases, leg bands indicated that the flamingos had come from two different areas of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula where they had been tagged as chicks.

“There are just too many individuals and they are here too regularly to be escapes,” Whitfield said. “There are not a lot of places where they can escape from, and they have been here too consistently.”

According to Jerry Lorenz, director of research at Audubon’s Everglades Science Center: “Historically, the Everglades, particularly Florida Bay, and the Keys were the largest locations for wild flamingos. It has always been their habitat. That’s why they were here in the first place and it’s why they are coming back.”

EVERGLADES RESTORATION

State and federal U.S. government agencies “have done a great job of acquiring and conserving land” in the wetlands area, he said, but the continued restoration of the unique landscape is key to the recovery of the flamingo in Florida. Central to that, he said, is restoring the flow of fresh water from Lake Okeechobee to the Gulf of Mexico and Florida Bay.

“I am guardedly optimistic that once we get the Everglades back to some semblance of the historical flow ways, we will attract even more flamingos and certainly more of the birds that are already here,” he said.

“And its not just the birds – it’s the fish, the marine mammals and marine reptiles,” he added. “All of these animals that rely on the flow of fresh water into the marine environment that sets up such a great habitat for all these organisms in and around the Everglades will respond positively.”

The scientists hope that their paper will bring about a rethinking of the status of the flamingo, Whitfield said. Currently, the species is granted protection under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. If it were deemed native by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission means it would benefit from special management attention.

“That is an important distinction because it makes them eligible for protection and some kind of monitoring effort. We think that is a pretty obvious step for the future,” he said.

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