The Florida scientific community is having an ongoing debate as to how native the American flamingos seen today are to the state, and if they warrant governmental protections. State wildlife officials recently opted against special protective status for the colorful wading bird.

Dr. Jerry Lorenz, who studies flamingos and other bird species at Audubon’s Everglades Science Center on Plantation Key, described the complicated history of flamingos in Florida.

He said historical scientific documents show that prior to the bird being hunted widely in the late 19th century, the number of flamingos throughout their range, which includes the Caribbean islands and Central and South America, probably numbered in the millions. But that was brought down to as few as 10,000 in the early 20th century. By 1904, there were likely no flamingos left in Florida, as they were hunted down for plumage and food.

A few attempts were made to reintroduce the bird to the state. A population was brought to the Hialeah racetrack in the 1940s for decorative purposes, but they escaped. Then another population was brought there and their wings were clipped. That group grew big enough to become self-sustaining, and because the clipping of wings ended, the birds are now free to go where they want.

Because of that, the prevailing theory for years was that if you see a few flamingos in South Florida, they are probably just escapees of that population.

Lorenz said that for a time, he subscribed to this belief, as did his predecessors in his current job. But now, opinions are shifting as other countries are enacting legal protections for flamingos and their population is rebounding. It’s likely there are now about half a million flamingos in their historic range, according to Lorenz, and scientists have observed flamingos tagged in the Yucatan peninsula in Florida.

Today, it’s likely that about half of the flamingos seen in Florida are transient wild birds from other regions and half are descendants of the population that was brought to the state artificially, Lorenz said.

A petition was filed recently to have the flamingo put on the state threatened species list to give them extra legal protections. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission discussed the petition but ultimately decided not to give the species that status.

Lorenz was part of a seven-person biological review team that recommended FWC add the species to the threatened species list and said he was “disappointed” in the result. He said that although the bird’s numbers are increasing, humans still pose a threat to the flamingo.

But he added that the FWC’s decision was reasoned since it did not want to spend resources protecting a bird that appears to be doing well. Lorenz said he can see the sense in that conclusion, and while it was not what he had hoped for, he “won’t lose sleep over it.”

Even if the species is doing well in general, it’s a far cry from before their numbers were decimated by plume hunters. Lorenz said that some reports from the 19th century speak of flocks with thousands of flamingos from Cape Sable and the Upper and Lower Keys. The largest flock observed in the last 20 years was around 150 birds.

Garl Harrold, an Everglades tour guide who frequents the flats where wading birds gather en masse, said seeing a flamingo remains a rarity, especially since Hurricane Irma in 2017. He said he will usually only see one or two if he sees them at all. On occasion he has seen a flock of around 15 that remain in the same area for a few days to a month.

In order to help the species, Lorenz said the best thing that can be done is to learn more about them.

“They’re not out of the woods in their native range because man is crowding out wetlands, and habitats like the Florida Bay around the world are being degraded. They need continued protection throughout their range,” he said.