Flamingos, Florida’s Flashy New State Bird?

The Florida legislature is once again considering replacing its state bird, the northern mockingbird, with a new and improved candidate. While the legislative session doesn’t start until March, people are already advocating for their favorite, including the icon of Florida itself, the American flamingo.

Efforts to dethrone the widespread northern mockingbird with a candidate more unique to Florida have failed in the past. Yet enthusiasm for change persists. Florida has an impressive array of bird life, including several endemic species, while the northern mockingbird’s range extends across the U.S., Canada, the Caribbean, and Mexico. In contrast, the flamingo only occurs in Florida in the U.S. and has become an icon for the tropical, beach-filled Sunshine State.

American flamingo, a candidate for the new state bird
American flamingo in Bonaire

Iconic Birds: Flamingos in Florida

Flamingos have a unique history in Florida. While the status of the flamingo was once debated, in 2018, scientists determined that flamingos were native to Florida. Today, wild flamingos are rare in the state, but scientists discovered that large flocks of flamingos once lived in Florida Bay and the Florida Keys. However, hunters likely drove these birds to extinction at the end of the 1800s for food and feathers. At the time, women used feathers to adorn fashionable hats. Fortunately, since the 1950s, flamingo populations around the Caribbean have been recovering, with sightings of flamingos in Florida steadily increasing.

Many people would likely guess the flamingo is already the state bird. Flamingos (or at least their image) are interwoven into the culture of Florida. Florida’s government has promoted flamingos as the official symbol of the Florida Lotto since the 1980s. This flamingo-themed lotto has generated more than $40 billion since 1988, supporting 880,00 Bright Futures Scholarships. Florida’s tourist industry has used flamingos to promote travel here since the early 1900s— through postcards, travel posters, hotel signs, and knickknacks. These enormously beneficial marketing campaigns have branded flamingos as an unofficial symbol of Florida.

Flocks of American flamingos

Symbolic Animal Conservation

Some may argue that the American flamingo is too rare to be an official state bird. However, other state bird candidates, such as the Florida scrub jay, occur only small areas, while another, the roseate spoonbill, is listed as threatened by the state. Like the flamingo, many other animals on Florida’s “State Symbol” list are vital conservation stories. For example, the Florida Panther, Florida’s State Animal, has rebounded from around 20 panthers to more than 200 —though their recovery remains tentative.

While the state bird status doesn’t offer any formal protection, it does draw attention to the species and the environment. So, even if this campaign follows in the footsteps of previous years, failing to replace the intractable mockingbird, getting people thinking and talking about birds is still a success in my book.

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