Ex­plorer

Pink flamin­gos: a cher­ished Florida icon

RSWLiving - - Department­s - BY ANN MARIE O’PHELAN

Feath­ered Friends

When you see a flock of flamin­gos, no doubt you’ll stop and take no­tice. These brightly colored wad­ing birds, with feath­ers in var­i­ous shades of pink, or­ange and crim­son, are im­pos­si­ble to miss. Dis­tinc­tive col­ors aside, the flamin­gos still stand out among other waterfowl, like herons and cranes, be­cause of their im­pres­sive height (31 to 57 inches tall), their pen­sion for stand­ing on one leg to con­serve body heat, and their abil­ity to wade into deeper wa­ters—thanks to lovely long legs.

Al­though a few flamin­gos have been re­ported liv­ing in the wild in the Florida Ever­glades af­ter es­cap­ing from cap­tiv­ity or be­ing set free dur­ing a hur­ri­cane, most of the state’s flamingo pop­u­la­tion re­sides in wildlife sanc­tu­ar­ies where the pub­lic can ooh and aah over these gor­geous crea­tures. How­ever, in the Caribbean, South Amer­ica, Gala­pa­gos Is­lands and other parts of the globe, the story is dif­fer­ent. Some 900,000 flamin­gos fly freely and for­age on the shores of lakes and lagoons.

Back in the 1950s when road travel and the state’s tourism in­dus­try were boom­ing, flamin­gos were a hit at Florida’s road­side at­trac­tions— and as pink plas­tic lawn or­na­ments that found their way into res­i­den­tial landscapin­g and re­main a fun Florida icon to this day. Young chicks were snatched from their par­ents in places like Chile and the Caribbean and be­came part of the ex­otic bird trade be­fore con­ser­va­tion laws were en­forced. To­day many of the at­trac­tions fea­tur­ing live flamin­gos have since been re­placed with sanc­tu­ar­ies and habi­tats de­signed to pro­vide nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ments where the waterfowl can wade, fish and so­cial­ize.

The 100-year-old Sunken Gar­dens in St. Peters­burg pro­vides peace­ful, trop­i­cal sur­round­ings for a flock of light pink Chilean flamin­gos. Back in 2008, a no­tably larger group thrived here; how­ever, the last two of a flock of 17, dat­ing back to 1956 (yes, they can live more than 70 years in cap­tiv­ity), is all that ex­ists to­day. Plans are in place to add 12 more birds, which will be gar­nered from other Florida at­trac­tions.

“Flamin­gos flock to­gether be­cause they are so­cial crea­tures,” says Bill O’Grady, Sunken Gar­dens’ su­per­vi­sor who ex­plains that they also flock to­gether for safety.

THE 100-YEAR-OLD SUNKEN GAR­DENS IN ST. PETERS­BURG PRO­VIDES PEACE­FUL, TROP­I­CAL SUR­ROUND­INGS FOR A FLOCK OF LIGHT PINK CHILEAN FLAMIN­GOS.

”We call our flamin­gos ‘our girls,’ but many guests have nick­named them Ge­orge and Lucy, af­ter Ge­orge and Lucy Turner, who pre­vi­ously owned Sunken Gar­dens.” These el­derly hens are a bit timid with guests, but en­joy eat­ing from the hands of their care­tak­ers. “They like to snug­gle a bit,” says O’Grady as he watches the girls cud­dle to­gether in the sand. The flamin­gos are lo­cated just past the blue-and-gold Scar­let Macaws and the laugh­ing kook­abur­ras, right off the trail that me­an­ders through four acres of gar­dens burst­ing with 50,000 var­i­ous trop­i­cal plants, like pony­tail and screw palms, and cas­cad­ing pink bougainvil­leas.

At Flamingo Gar­dens, a 60-acre botan­i­cal gar­den and wildlife sanc­tu­ary in Davie, vis­i­tors can in­ter­act with a flock of 18 birds. A fun ac­tiv­ity is to hand feed them pel­lets from the food dis­pensers. “It’s al­ways ex­cit­ing to see the peo­ple’s faces when they feed a flamingo for the first time,” says Laura Wy­att, cu­ra­tor of wildlife at Flamingo Gar­dens. The flamin­gos first grab the pel­lets from your hand and then dip their beaks in wa­ter to moisten them.

The sanc­tu­ary’s Caribbean/Amer­i­can flamin­gos and are clearly the bright­est colored of the species in comparison to the oth­ers: Greater, Lesser, An­dean, St. James

BACK IN THE 1950S WHEN ROAD TRAVEL AND THE STATE’S TOURISM IN­DUS­TRY WERE BOOM­ING, FLAMIN­GOS WERE A HIT AT FLORIDA’S ROAD­SIDE AT­TRAC­TIONS— AND AS PINK PLAS­TIC LAWN OR­NA­MENTS THAT FOUND THEIR WAY INTO RES­I­DEN­TIAL LANDSCAPIN­G AND RE­MAIN A FUN FLORIDA ICON TO THIS DAY.

and Chilean. “Flamin­gos are pink be­cause of the food they eat,” ex­plains Wy­att. Al­gae and crus­taceans have carotenoid­s that ac­tu­ally en­hance the pink­ish pig­ment that they pos­sess. “Flamin­gos’ beaks have ser­rated edges called ‘lamella’ that help them fil­ter al­gae and crus­taceans like shrimp, krill and cray­fish while feed­ing,” says Wy­att, who has worked at the South Florida gar­dens for 15 years.

Al­though they love to flock to­gether, flamin­gos are gen­er­ally monog­a­mous. Like with many species, the males are larger than the fe­males. When it comes to re­pro­duc­ing, the fe­males typ­i­cally lay one egg. “I had the won­der­ful op­por­tu­nity to raise 10 of our cur­rent flamin­gos from eggs,” says Wy­att, who en­thu­si­as­ti­cally re­mem­bers the ex­pe­ri­ence as one of the most in­cred­i­ble times of her life.

Al­though they seem quiet, flamin­gos have a wide range of vo­cal­iza­tions. “Their honk is sim­i­lar to a goose,” says Wy­att, fur­ther ex­plain­ing that the male has a lower call than the fe­male. Flamingo Gar­dens is also home to 90 species of in­dige­nous birds and an­i­mals, in­clud­ing ea­gles, owls, pea­cocks, al­li­ga­tors, pan­thers, bob­cats and river ot­ters.

Al­though we of­ten see flamin­gos stand­ing and wad­ing, they are ac­tu­ally strong swim­mers and fliers. No mat­ter if they are swim­ming, fly­ing, stand­ing or wad­ing, these el­e­gant birds sure know how to cap­ture our hearts with their mag­nif­i­cent col­ors and in­cred­i­ble grace. Ann Marie O’Phelan is a lo­cal free­lance writer and na­ture lover, who en­joys ex­plor­ing the many won­drous of­fer­ings of our state.

The beta-carotene in a flamingo’s nat­u­ral diet en­hances its bright pink col­oration.

At Flamingo Gar­dens, near Fort Laud­erdale, Caribbean flamin­gos thrive in an en­vi­ron­ment of trop­i­cal veg­e­ta­tion and wa­ter­falls.

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