The Mystery of How Florida Got Its Flamingos


The Centuries-Old Mystery of How Florida Got Its Flamingos


It was late afternoon, and John J. Audubon still hadn’t found a flamingo. The sun was slinking toward the horizon, the sky scuffed by wispy clouds, and the boat was able to slice through the water with barely a ripple. Not a bad voyage, but Audubon had engineered this expedition to the islands off of Florida’s southeast coast for the express purpose of finding a flock of the long-necked crimson beauties. Where were they?

Audubon had seen an American Flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber) in Florida before—in Key West, soaring toward a hammock of mangroves. (Naturally, he tried to nab it as a specimen, but it dodged the shot he fired.) He knew that flamingos were thick in Cuba, and had heard that the birds often congregated near Pensacola, and sometimes Alabama or South Carolina. Now, in May of 1832, he was desperate to shoot one, or even lay eyes on one—but so far, no luck.

Then, off in the distance, he spotted a flock careening with outstretched wings, elongated necks, and legs tucked back behind them. “Ah! reader, could you but know the emotions that then agitated my breast!” he later wrote. The birds changed direction before he could aim his gun, but Audubon watched them as if entranced, and didn’t tear his gaze away until dusk settled.