A Lorax for American Flamingos

American flamingos' arresting pigmentation is due to their carotenoid-rich diet. Image © Lisa Marun

Like many of the unique characters in Dr. Seuss’ books that are not ashamed to celebrate themselves (I am what I am! That’s a great thing to be!), the American flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber) stands out—on one leg—like a large neon sign with its bright pinkish-coral coloring.

And like much of the world’s nature and wildlife today, American flamingos are also in need of an army of Dr. Seuss’ Loraxes to voice their plight.

Ironically, despite their flashy appearance and their ubiquity in Greetings from Florida postcards, tropical cocktail partyware, and in the form of plastic lawn props, these smile-inducing birds on stilts have somehow flown under the radar in terms of receiving their due protection from those charged with heeding to nature’s alarm bells.

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.

The Once-ler, The Lorax (1971)

In June 2018, a group of researchers led by Zoo Miami’s Dr. Steven Whitfield submitted a petition to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) that may help change the course of the American flamingo’s population status. This petition came on the heels of a February 2018 report in the American Ornithological Society’s journal, The Condor, by Whitfield and others in which they analyzed “historical and contemporary information to clarify the status and trends of flamingos in Florida and to lay a scientific foundation for their management.”

Essentially, the question is whether this cultural icon, which was nearly completely wiped out by human hunting by the turn of the 20th century, is due FWC evaluation for inclusion as a threatened species or species of special concern. Lost nesting sites and extreme weather conditions that can mean no nesting attempts in certain years, as well as reduced overall distribution and range size, are among the factors that appear to have the greatest negative effects on the American flamingo’s population size.

The researchers point to scientific data and a set of biological variables, including evidence that American flamingos historically nested in the Florida Keys, and suggest that now is the time to rectify the birds’ absence from inclusion in quantitative ranking review by FWC—an omission presumably due to the FWC’s following previous assumed consensus among ornithologists that the birds are not native to Florida.

At left: From “Status and trends of American Flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber) in Florida, USA,” 120(2), The Condor (21 February 2018): “An American Flamingo egg specimen held at Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ). The locality is listed as ‘Florida Keys’ and the date reads ‘1887.’ (A) The egg specimen and (B) the egg card associated with it.”

According to the FWC, the current status for this evaluation request is that a Biological Review Group is expected to complete an American flamingo review in 2020.

Why You Should Become a Lorax for the American Flamingo

Here are some fun facts that may make you think twice about these beautiful, highly social birds (colonies can reach the tens of thousands) the next time you see a plastic flamingo in a neighbor’s yard.

1. The American flamingo (aka Caribbean flamingo and as Chogogo) is one of six flamingo species, and is closely related to the Chilean flamingo and the greater flamingo; it’s sometimes considered conspecific with the later.

2. American flamingos live in Florida, the Caribbean, Mexico’s Yucatán, and South America (including the Galápagos Islands). Notable nesting sites can be found in The Bahamas, Cuba, Bonaire, and Venezuela.

3. Before the decimation of the American flamingo population due to hunting for meat and the plume trade, John James Audubon (at Indian Key, 1832) was among the many observers in Florida awed by the impressive, frequent gatherings of these shockingly colorful birds.

4. There aren’t many species that can get away with standing on their tip-toes for long stretches of time. Flamingos’ ‘knees’ are actually their ankle joints, and their knees are tucked up under their feathers.

5. Much of flamingos’ looks are due to their feeding habits (and there is no color differentiation between males and females). Among their unique physical features: their flamboyantly-colored plumage owes its arresting pigmentation to its carotenoid-rich diet; their long necks, bodies, and legs allow them to wade into a buffet of food choices unavailable to smaller shore birds; and their bills (which develop their curved shape after birth) have evolved into a set of perfectly fitting fine-toothed black combs that allow them to sieve algae and aquatic invertebrates.

Unless otherwise noted, all images © Lisa Marun 2019. Please contact Lisa Marun for use of images on this website.