The Coolest Birds: Georgia’s First American Flamingos

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The Coolest Birds: Georgia’s First American Flamingos

Welcome to another installment of “The Coolest Birds.” When I launched Paste Magazine with friends back in 2002, it was about our collective passion—for music, film, books and culture. As we’ve added to our passions, Paste has been that outlet to talk about everything from great craft beer and whisky to travel destinations we’ve loved. And in the last few years, I’ve developed a passion for the abundant nature around Atlanta. I’ve realized lately that I have a lot of “favorite birds,” often depending on what I’ve just witnessed out in the woods. In this column, I’ll try to express what makes these avian creatures so spectacularly interesting.

It’s been a while since I’ve written a Coolest Birds column, but I was left with no choice after encountering Georgia’s first American Flamingos last week. Though originally native to parts of Florida—along with their current range stretching from northern South America through Mexico and the Carribean—they were extirpated from the U.S. in the nineteenth century, hunted for their large pink feathers. But last year, Hurricane Idalia scattered flamingos northward with several states getting their first recorded birds. Imagine being at a pond in Wisonsin, Ohio or Pennsylvania and coming across a four-and-a-half-foot-tall bright pink bird from the Yucatán Peninsula that was in the middle of migrating to Cuba.

While Gulf Coast states from Florida to Texas had occasional encounters with flamingos getting blown off course before, American ornithologists had never seen anything quite like the influx of these giant shrimp-eating birds throughout the midwest and east coast. And yet, Georgia birders looked at reports from every bordering state and wondered, “Where are our flamingos?”

When Adam Weber spotted four young birds foraging in Little St. Simons Island’s Myrtle Pond on May 25, Georgia finally joined the flamingo party. I was already scheduled for a trip to nearby Jekyll Island last week and immediately booked half-day passes for me and my son onto the private island. The island is only accessible by boat, so we joined 18 others for a ferry ride to the island, where we climbed into the back beds of two trucks towards the first observation tower. We could immediately see what looked like three pale pink flamingos, but the fourth was hiding behind the one in the middle, occasionally creating the illusion of a two-headed flamingo when the far bird would poke his head down. These were all subadult birds, and like my subadult son, seemed pretty slow moving this early in the morning (though my son hasn’t yet perfected sleeping while standing on one leg).

These, however, were not the only flamingos in the pond today, as our guide let us know about a fifth American Flamingo that had shown up the day before—an adult who seemed to keep separate from the younger birds. We traveled to the second tower and got great looks at the adult, a much brighter pink bird that was busy foraging in the shallow waters. Flamingos can take up to six years to reach sexual maturity and can live up to 40 years.

Getting to see wild flamingos in my home state was a treat, and whether it’s due to climate change or expanding ranges, it’s one that more Americans have been getting to experience lately. Just before my trip to Little St. Simons, there was another unexpected flamingo sighting in the U.S. A single bird was spotted on East Hampton’s Georgica Pond on Long Island, N.Y. While plenty of celebrities decamp to the Hamptons in the summer, likely none had as many people snapping once-in-a-lifetime photos.

While most of the wayward flamingos didn’t stick around for long up north, there has been a veritable flamboyance of flamingos remaining in Florida (yes, a group of flamingos is called a flamboyance), and some are hoping they stay long enough to breed. They’re iconic to the state and were once an established part of the landscape. For now, we’ll just enjoy this rare chance to see American Flamingos in the U.S.

Josh Jackson co-founded Paste Magazine in 2002, where he serves as president and editor-in-chief. Follow him on Twitter at @joshjackson or his bird photography @BirdsAtl on Twitter and atl_birds on Instagram

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