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Hurricane Idalia pushed flamingos up the East Coast. Some people hope they'll stay

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Flamingos have been making their way across the eastern U.S. ever since Hurricane Idalia pushed the birds off their usual course. Now some hope the birds decide to settle in Florida for the first time in more than 120 years. From member station WLRN, Julia Cooper reports.

JULIA COOPER, BYLINE: Julie Wraithmell was thrilled to hear about flamingo sightings after Hurricane Idalia in August.

JULIE WRAITHMELL: First it was a couple and then it was more. And, you know, suddenly, there was a wealth of flamingos all over the west coast of Florida.

COOPER: Wraithmell is director of Audubon Florida. She says flamingos aren't supposed to be found outside of the Sunshine State.

WRAITHMELL: We started seeing small sightings trickling up the East Coast, so South Carolina, North Carolina.

COOPER: Virginia and then Tennessee, Ohio, Pennsylvania.

WRAITHMELL: So it's a little bit crazy, but it's also really exciting.

COOPER: She was most excited about sightings of small flocks.

WRAITHMELL: Having them on our beaches is not something really that's been seen in, you know, more than a hundred years.

COOPER: Experts believe the flamingos came from the Yucatan Peninsula. The fate of the birds that wound up as far north as Wisconsin is unknown. But at least one flamingo found in Pennsylvania has died after getting bitten by a snapping turtle. While they're an odd sight for the northeastern United States, these striking birds on stilt legs used to roam the Florida peninsula in flocks of thousands.

WRAITHMELL: Flamingos are native to Florida and historically bred here, particularly in Florida Bay and the Everglades. Unfortunately, they were hunted to extirpation, which means that they no longer breed here in Florida.

COOPER: It was their intricate pink feathers used to make fancy hats that was their demise. Now, Wraithmell says wild flamingos breed mostly in the Caribbean, and sometimes small flocks venture into remote spots in the Everglades for the winter.

WRAITHMELL: This recent return as a result of Idalia has us all wondering, are we going to get a second chance at Flamingos?

COOPER: At Zoo Miami, people from around the world line up to see the flamboyance. Yes, that is the word for a group of flamingos. This one has about 40, but a wild breeding flock hasn't made the state home since the early 1900s. Researchers at Audubon Florida and Zoo Miami want to know why they never recovered and if they can help them come back. After the storm crossed the Gulf of Mexico and battered Florida's Big Bend region, Zoo Miami's Frank Ridgley got a call about a flamingo that was found swimming out in deep water off of Florida's west coast.

FRANK RIDGLEY: They aren't very graceful swimmers, but they can float. And this flamingo that was affectionately named Peaches seems like the feathers were getting waterlogged, and the bird was exhausted.

COOPER: It did not look good for Peaches, but a team of rehabilitators from the Seaside Seabird Sanctuary in Indian Shores nursed the bird back to health. Then Peaches got a bright blue leg band and solar-powered satellite tracker.

RIDGLEY: If they remember how to get home, that'll be exciting because then we'll know and we'll be able to follow the adventures of Peaches and where it goes.

COOPER: Peaches may return to its birthplace or find a flock and settle in Florida, but whatever Peaches decides to do now will tell researchers a lot about whether the state could again host a wild breeding flock of flamingos.

For NPR News, I'm Julia Cooper in Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Julia Cooper - WLRN