One sunny spring day in 2012, Tony Pernas, a botanist for the Big Cypress National Preserve, volunteered his boat to take colleagues on a scouting trip to chase down a rumored flock of rare flamingos spotted in a remote Everglades lake.
Despite their iconic connection to Florida, the shocking pink birds are not considered native and are almost never seen in the wild.
Singles or pairs sometimes show up in the Keys. But outside the domestic flock at Hialeah racetrack, wild groups are a true oddity.
“Sure as heck,” Pernas said. “There was a flock of 18.”
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As they photographed the vivid pink birds against the muddy gray flats of Lake Ingraham, just inside Cape Sable at the state’s southwestern tip, Pernas asked the experts with him the obvious question: why? How is it that a bird that has long wowed tourists is in fact itself a tourist?
“I’m a botanist, you know, so we’re going over all the possibilities and I kept hearing these guys say I don’t know,” he said.
What Pernas didn’t realize at the time is that he’d stumbled into a century-old debate among ornithologists. Early naturalists spotted plenty flamingos, but never made a definitive decision. A century later, after plume hunters ravaged the state, they’d mostly disappeared. Now, a comprehensive study recently published in the American Ornithological Society’s journal The Condor finally provides an answer: Flamingos are likely natives, though their footprint in Florida is as light as their hot pink feathers.
The study, written by Pernas, Zoo Miami’s Steve Whitfield and Frank Ridgely, Audubon Florida’s Pete Frezza and Jerry Lorenz, biologists Anne Mauro and Judd Patterson, depicts a rich — and gruesome — flamingo legacy in South Florida, and an enduring mystery about their habitats and haunts.
By the 1950s, flamingos had become so rare that most ornithologists had decided that any wild birds were escapees from Hialeah’s flock — or other attractions like the Miami Rare Bird Farm in Kendall, Crandon Park Zoo, Bok Tower in Lake Wales or the old Ross Allen Reptile Institute in Silver Springs.
Some tried to argue they were in fact once native, wiped out by the plume trade that decimated other bird populations at the turn of the century, and pointed to references in historical accounts. But Audubon Florida’s lead biologist, who arrived in the Keys in 1939 well after the carnage, concluded no evidence existed that they ever nested here.
“There was a kind of generational thing,” said Lorenz, Audubon’s state research director. “Everybody accepted they were native and then everybody accepted they were not.”
As Pernas talked to other scientists, the designation seemed wildly misguided. So they decided to launch a fairly straightforward research project to determine where Florida’s flamingos were from: Catch some wild ones and attach satellite trackers to see where they go. They researched snare techniques used in Africa and pitched a proposal to piggyback the search for flamingos on annual aerial surveys to track the spread of invasive plants. They expected the project to take five years.
Prospects brightened considerably when a flock of 147 birds appeared in a shallow manmade marsh used to treat farm field run-off in Palm Beach County.
“It was kind of crazy that all these birds show up all of a sudden,” Lorenz said. “You would assume they would show up in Cape Sable or Snake Bight,” just west of Flamingo, the campgrounds in Everglades National Park where plume hunters had once counted flocks in the thousands.
They also double-checked with the racetrack’s operations manager to make sure Hialeah wasn’t missing any flamingos.
“We asked him is it possible that 147 flamingos could disappear from your flock and you wouldn’t notice,” Pernas said. “He said no. I would notice if even a few disappeared.”
But the flamingos turned out to be much craftier than expected and managed to dance across the network of snares without ever getting caught. The appearance of the new flock also sent scientists back to the question that had launched the project — why weren’t flamingos considered native — and back to early accounts from naturalists and hunters.
Ridgely, Zoo Miami’s head vet who was helping snare the birds, had just hired a new reptile specialist, biologist Whitfield of Zoo Miami, and put him to work scouring records. It didn’t take long for Whitfield to discover a trove of online information that would have been unavailable to Lorenz’s mentor, Audubon naturalist Bob Allen.
In 1827, the first flamingo sighting was reported north of Tampa near the Anclote Keys. Five years later, famed naturalist John James Audubon spotted a flock near Indian Key, a trading post that eventually became the county seat for Monroe County, and within a decade the sight of a grisly Calusa raid on settlers that killed Henry Perrine.
“Ah! reader, could you but know the emotions that then agitated my breast!” Audubon wrote of seeing the birds for the first time. “I thought I had now reached the height of all my expectations, for my voyage to the Floridas was undertaken in a great measure for the purpose of studying these lovely birds in their own beautiful islands.”
Audubon’s painting of a deeply scarlet bird, dipping its long neck in defiance of mortal physiology, is among his most popular.
Over the next six decades, hunters and naturalists reported flocks ranging from hundreds of birds to thousands. And while the reports were primarily in the Keys, birds were also spotted farther north near Marco Island. One detailed account included notorious hunter LeChavelier, who made an appearance in Peter Matthiessen’s Killing Mister Watson as a plume trader appalled by the destruction of Florida’s frontier. LeChavelier said he was paid $25 a skin. A flock of more than 2,500 was reported around 1885 and a year later a flock of about a thousand. The last reported sighting of a flock was in 1902, east of Cape Sable.
Over the next 50 years, small numbers were reported, from the Card Sound bridge as far north as Hobe Sound. Whitfield could find no detailed, reliable sightings at all between 1940 and 1950. The birds seemed to have vanished.
In addition to the written accounts, Whitfield found taxidermied specimens in collections taken from Florida before 1948. Whitfield also tracked down eggs in museum collections: five eggs in four collections documented from Florida. While egg records were often fudged — eggs from more exotic places were considered more valuable — Whitfield said the eggs provide vital evidence.
“That’s the best evidence so far that they were actually nesting here,” he said.
He also obtained DNA samples, allowing them to compare the long-gone flamingos to those now flying around Florida.
But they still hadn’t caught a flamingo. Then came Conchy.
In the fall of 2015, Pernas got a call from a U.S. Department of Agriculture agent in the Keys who’d heard about the flamingo project. What looked like a family of flamingos had turned up in a tidal pond at the end of an airstrip at the Boca Chica Naval Air Station, she said. The parents had fled, leaving behind the young flamingo. Navy officials were afraid it was going to fly into a jet, endangering pilots. They needed it gone, so they offered the USDA agent two alternatives: Catch it or kill it. Pernas contacted Ridgely.
“She said please don’t make me shoot it,” Ridgely said. “We were, arrogantly, like sure, even though we’d never caught one before.”
Once at the station east of Key West, the pair tried, but failed, to corral it and realized they needed help.
“The jets were really taking off within feet of us, all day and all night,” Ridgely said. “He’d let us get fairly close before he’d fly away.”
So they reached out to the Key West Wildlife Center’s Tom Sweets, who had a net gun that the center used to rescue great blue herons and pelicans.
“The guy had gotten to be a pretty good shot,” Ridgely said.
As Sweets lay in the mud hiding and Whitfield blocked an escape route, Ridgely herded the young bird toward the gun. But as soon as Sweets cocked the trigger, the gun’s CO2 canister emitted a hiss, startling the bird into a running take-off. Ridgely started clapping, Sweets fired, and the bird, later named Conchy, was netted.
Birds are given bands coded by country color and number to easily identify them. Conchy became US01, with a blue band and white lettering. After making sure he was healthy, the team released him near Snake Bight with a tracker, hoping he would be reunited with its parents. The satellite tracker was supposed to provide location data every five days.
But the day of the first transmission, Ridgely got a call from the park. Conchy was by a park road and looked bad.
“He was just a puddle of a bird,” he said.
When he checked again, Ridgely found Conchy’s feces filled with liver flukes, a parasite that can kill if not treated. The tidal pond where they found Conchy was filled with snails and frequently visited by other birds. Ridgely guesses that the flamingo probably spent the three weeks he lived near the pond feasting on snails, which picked up the flukes from the bird feces. After treating him for flukes and nursing him back to health at the zoo, they released Conchy off Tavernier.
For the next two years, Conchy’s flight patterns provided a trove of information. Not long after his release, he was spotted with another flamingo. That companion disappeared but he soon found another, Ridgely said. The last time he was seen, he was with a group of five birds.
Conchy revealed that flamingos spent a good deal of time in the lagoons in the interiors of mangrove islands that provided shelter but also kept them hidden from sight.
After Hurricane Irma, Conchy’s transmissions stopped. The tracker’s battery is still charged, so Ridgely suspects the antenna was damaged and flamingo US01 is likely still out there.
“It’s just a sample size of one bird, but he told us that Florida Bay can still support flamingos,” Ridgely said. “He stayed year-round and he showed us all these important roosting and feeding areas.”
The team has been in contact with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and plans to ask to have their status reassigned — or corrected. Once designated, wildlife managers could devise a better management strategy and protections for the bird, a designation that could help protect habitat and steer Everglades restoration efforts. They plan to make the same request to federal wildlife managers, Pernas said.
Last week, just before the paper was printed, a FWC spokeswoman said the agency has changed the birds’ designation to native in some parts of Florida, but did not respond to a question about the timing of the change. A web page that described them as nonnative was also taken down.
In Lorenz’s mind, Conchy provided the critical puzzle piece in proving how colossally wrong his mentor, Allen, had been about the bird’s roots in Florida.
“I went into this with great skepticism,” he said. “All these things came together to convince me, and the other authors, that those flamingos are part of our native population. They belong here in Florida.”
Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich