Wild flamingos are here and there has not been this much excitement about a new Tampa Bay resident since Tom Brady arrived.
Like Brady, the flamingos might be here for a short stay, bringing joy to those who see them before heading to South Florida.
“It’s pretty neat to see them here,” said Molly Lippincott, senior curator of Florida and marine life at Zoo Tampa, which has 15 resident flamingos under human care. “It will be interesting to see if they’ll stay or if this is just a migratory thing.”
When any new neighbor moves in, it’s good etiquette to get to know them. So the Tampa Bay Times reached out to locals who study flamingos.
Here is some of what we learned:
Can I pet a flamingo?
“They are skittish,” Lippincott said. “When we go in their habitat, they move away from us. They don’t necessarily want to be near people.”
If a person gets too close in the wild, the birds might freak out, the flock could split up and one or some might become permanently separated.
“They want to stay with a flock and not be alone,” said Dwayne Biggs, supervising director of Sunken Gardens, where 22 flamingos live under human care. Worse yet, a scared flamingo might wander into traffic. “Just enjoy them from afar.”
Wait, you just called them a flock. Aren’t a group of flamingos called a flamboyance?
Yes, a flamboyance, likely because that describes their look, Lippincott said. “Like how a rhino herd is called a crash.”
But while the term flamboyance is the answer to Tampa Bay’s new favorite trivia question, Biggs said, flock is fine, too. “I’ve had people arguing that they are a flamboyance and not a flock. They’re both. The terms mean the same. They are a flock of birds.”
Why are they suddenly in Tampa Bay?
That’s hard to know for certain unless someone learns to speak flamingo or vice versa.
The popular theory is that the birds, classified as American flamingos, were living in the Yucatán peninsula, heading for Cuba, got swept up in Hurricane Idalia’s winds and were pushed farther north.
That could be, said Deby Cassill, a biology professor at the University of South Florida, but another possibility is that they are not storm victims. Rather, they are storm captains.
“Flamingos are thrill-seekers, like Tom Cruise in ‘Mission Impossible,’” she said. “They are thrilled when a big wind comes because it’s smooth sailing. They have a joyful sense of adventure, so they might have flown into the wind to see how far it could take them. They’re on vacation.”
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Has something like this happened before?
Yes. In the 1800s with the help of strong wind, cattle egrets migrated from Africa to South America and then came to Florida in the 1940s, again with the assistance of heavy wind, Cassill said. Those birds now reside in the Sunshine State full time. So, it is possible that these flamingos will also remain in Florida and repopulate.
But flamingos are native to Florida, right?
Yes, though they have not been seen in Tampa Bay for a long time. They’re based mostly in places like South Florida, Florida Bay and the Florida Keys, but there are not as many in our state as there once were.
In the late 1800s, they were nearly hunted out of existence in Florida, Jerry Lorenz, state research director for Audubon Florida, previously told the Times. Some people ate them, but the birds were more wanted for fashion. Their feathers made nice women’s hats.
Today, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission treats flamingos as a protected species, which means it is against the law to harm or injure the birds.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature estimates the global flamingo population to be 260,000-330,000 “and Florida’s population is estimated to be a fraction of 1% of the global population,” the commission’s website says.
Where in Tampa Bay are flamingos staying and how many are there?
So far, they have been spotted in locations including the Sanibel Causeway, Clearwater Beach, Fred Howard Park in Tarpon Springs, Treasure Island Beach, Fort De Soto beach and St. Pete Beach.
But it’s hard to tabulate the population without scientists tagging the flamingos. We don’t know if the birds spotted at the various beaches are unique or the same ones moving about.
Why do flamingos like our beaches?
For the same reason many people do — they want to party!
Look closely and you will notice that some flamingos are dancing. But that’s because they are hungry and the beaches are where food can be found.
“They eat very small crustaceans and micro algae,” Biggs said. “Those are found in shallow water. You’ll see them do what looks like a dance. It’s a lot of fun to watch and they’re just moving their feet up and down, up and down and they’re stirring up the sand and the sediment to stir those food items.”
How are the flamingos faring here?
So far, so good.
One seemed to get lost and was found confused and exhausted 800 yards from St. Pete Beach, swimming away from the shore. Nicknamed Peaches and rescued by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Tampa Bay, it was taken to the Dr. Marie L. Farr Avian Hospital at Indian Shores’ Seaside Seabird Sanctuary to be nursed back to health.
Peaches was doing well and will be returned to the Tampa Bay wild. The bird should be accepted by any flock, er … flamboyance. Flamingos aren’t too picky about the company they keep.
How tall are flamingos, are they always pink, and how can we tell the males from the females?
They are between 3½ and 5 feet tall and typically pink, “though are born with lighter, grayish-colored feathers and then eventually develop those pink feathers,” Lippincott said.
The color change is not due to DNA, but because their diet is high in beta carotene, which, when digested, turns the feathers pink.
As for trying to figure out the sex, well, don’t do that.
Males are typically bigger than females, Melissa Edwards, director of the Seaside Seabird Sanctuary, previously told the Times, but that is not an exact science.
We will spare you the details that Cassill shared about flamingo genitals and why it is difficult to know which are male and female. Instead, just know that Zoo Tampa and Sunken Gardens prefer to use blood tests to learn the genders of their flamingos.
Staying on an uncomfortable topic, what do you know about how flamingos reproduce?
Thanks to Cassill, way too much and now we’re having nightmares.
To keep this story rated PG: There is no set mating season, flamingos are not monogamous for life and females lay one egg per year in nests made of mud and clay that look like small volcanoes.
Those nests are why it is unlikely that the flamingos will make Tampa Bay beaches their permanent residence.
You’re breaking my heart. Why?
Because the nests are easiest to make in marshy areas, where their preferred food is also most abundant. Plus, they prefer to build the nests in seclusion.
“If they remain in Florida, they are more likely to go south to the Everglades,” Biggs said. “It’s more appropriate for them to live there than hanging out on Treasure Island beach.”
How much longer can we enjoy the flamingos here?
No one can know for sure.
“It’s important just to enjoy them,” Lippincott said. “Let them be natural and do their normal things so that we don’t get in their way. It’s a cool phenomenon and we should just enjoy it for what it is.”
Correction: Molly Lippincott said, “When we go in their habitat, they move away from us.” A previous version of this story attributed that quote to the wrong person.