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Not in the Yucatan anymore: Hurricane Idalia flung flamingos across the eastern U.S.

Two American flamingos seen at a Zoo in Miami, in July 2016. Flamingos are native to Florida, but less than 1% of the world's population resides there after the birds were hunted to near extinction at the turn of the 20th century.
Wilfredo Lee
Two American flamingos seen at a Zoo in Miami, in July 2016. Flamingos are native to Florida, but less than 1% of the world's population resides there after the birds were hunted to near extinction at the turn of the 20th century.

Updated September 7, 2023 at 12:56 PM ET

Flamingos have been popping up in the most unusual of places since Hurricane Idalia blew through parts of the U.S. Southeast last week.

In recent days, dozens of sightings have been reported from Texas to Florida, as far north as Pennsylvania and most states in between. And though flamingos can be found in parts of Florida, it's safe to say they don't frequently hang out farther north in states such as Kentucky, Tennessee and North and South Carolina.

The birds likely got caught up in Hurricane Idalia last week, according to Nate Swick, the American Birding Association's digital communications manager. That's a "fairly common phenomenon" for birds, but not for flamingos, he said.

"We're seeing flamingos all over the place. We're seeing them in places that we didn't expect them," Swick said. Elated bird watchers have been searching high and low for them. "... and then once the pair of birds were found in southern Ohio, sort of everything kind of broke loose."

Ohio was the northernmost point for the flamingos as of Wednesday, that is until a pair of flamingos were sighted in Southern Pennsylvania's Franklin County on Thursday morning.

According to counts on the American Birding Association's Rare Bird Alert Facebook page, there have been sightings in at least 10 states: Florida, Ohio, North and South Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama, Texas and Kentucky.

Though American flamingos are native to Florida, the birds were hunted to near-extinction at the beginning of the 1900s and make up a mere 1% of the global flamingo population, according to theFlorida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. That's why Swick and other bird enthusiasts were shocked to see flamingos hanging out on the Florida panhandle as well.

However, there is a sizable population of American flamingos on the Yucatan Peninsula, which separates the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, Swick said.

And photos of the flamingos found in Florida have tags linked to breeding populations in the Yucatan, Swick said. "So, we do know those birds mostly came from the Yucatan Peninsula. And they, you know, they got caught up in the storm and just kind of went with it."

In terms of how the flamingos navigated a major storm, Swick said there's no definitive explanation. He said they could have gotten caught in the storm and flown with the wind, or perhaps had been in the eye of Idalia and moved with it until the storm broke apart.

What likely happened, Swick explained, is that the birds were either in Yucatan or on their way to Cuba when the storm hit them. The flamingos went with the winds instead of fighting them, as the eastern portion of the storm drove the birds up the western side of Florida.

But flamingos are big, strong birds, more than capable of making their way back home, Swick said, like they did in 2019 following Hurricane Barry. That storm hit the northern part of the Gulf of Mexico and drove a small handful of flamingos to western Tennessee and Missouri.

"They kind of hung around there for a little while, and then eventually started making their way back," Swick said. "I think the flamingos are likely to start heading towards the coast, whether or not they know which direction to go, I don't know. Birds are capable of things that we cannot imagine."

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Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Dustin Jones is a reporter for NPR's digital news desk. He mainly covers breaking news, but enjoys working on long-form narrative pieces.

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