In 2015, Conchy the flamingo showed up at Florida’s Naval Air Station Key West, and he wouldn’t leave. Normally managers on the grounds lethally remove feathered troublemakers — it can be very dangerous with birds flying around million-dollar fighter jets — but Conchy was a charmer. Instead, they called the zoo.
The zoo slapped a satellite tracker on one leg and a band on the other. They nursed Conchy back to health. But when it came time to release him, the state asked: Did Conchy even belong here?
You see pink flamingos in Florida on T-shirts, hotel signs, lottery tickets and even the opening credits of Miami Vice. But it’s very rare to spot one like Conchy in the wild. Over the past 70 years or so, as more American flamingos seem to be showing up in the Sunshine State, a debate has emerged about the origin of these birds. Most think they’re escapees from captive populations, introduced to the state starting in the 1920s and 1930s. But others think they could be a returning population from Mexico, Cuba or the Caribbean reclaiming a lost part of its natural territory.
In South Florida, some joke that only two kinds of animals exist — introduced or invasive species you lose, or endangered ones you protect. And resolving whether flamingos were ever native to Florida is important for wildlife management because the state says they’re not.
“You would think for as conspicuous a bird as the pink flamingo, we would know some basics, but we just have a lot of questions,” said Steven Whitfield, a conservation biologist at Zoo Miami studying flamingos. So he assembled a team of specialists to sleuth through explorers’ notes, museum specimens and birding reports dating back more than a century to uncover the historical origins of American flamingos in Florida.