Pink flamingos: a cherished Florida icon
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.