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The Curious Case of the Cape Cod Flamingo

Last weekend, an unusual site was seen in Dennis, Massachusetts, situated on Cape Cod's Mid-Cape section. This site may have been the first ever for the state of Massachusetts. This was the sighting of a flamingo wading in the waters at Chapin Beach. On Sunday evening, a fisher first spotted the bird and snapped a picture. At that point, another person in a kayak came over to witness the bird.

Later on Sunday, the photos were shared with bird watching groups online. Naturally, the site of a large tropical bird in New England raised doubts and suspicions. However, these doubts were eventually squashed as other eyewitnesses of the flamingo came forward, including another beach goer who took a video of the bird. A coordinator from the Massachusetts Audubon of Cape Cod confirmed the bird's presence in the state.

Flamingo spotted on Chapin Beach on Cape Cod. Photo by Samatha Roth

While this isn't the first flamingo sighting in the state of Massachusetts, it may be the first sighting of a wild flamingo in the region. This is the fourth documented case of a flamingo in Massachusetts. In 1965, a flamingo was spotted in Natick, but was concluded to be an escaped bird from captivity. This ruling came as an imported flamingo from the Dominican Republic was reported to have escaped from a resident in nearby Westwood prior to the sighting.

The year before the Natick sighting, a flamingo was spotted on Plum Island in May of 1964. This bird was found to have no clear connection to the Natick bird. The Massachusetts Avian Records Committee saw two votes to accept this bird as a wild sighting, however, the majority voted against, citing the date and dull plumage (and, of course, the unusual location) were not suggestive of a wild bird, so it was ruled another escapee.

Flamingo spotted on Plum Island in 1964. Photo from the Massachusetts Avian Records Commitee

The most recent sighting prior to 2024 came in 1985. This one’s status of being wild or not was never really considered as the bird was found to be a Chilean Flamingo. This type of flamingo naturally resides in South America, though the species has been introduced in other areas, such as Germany, where a group of birds escaped captivity and began breeding. The 1985 sighting was most certainly an escapee. A 1968 sighting in New Hampshire was also quickly confirmed to be an escapee.

Coming back to Dennis in 2024, Massachusetts Audubon of Cape Cod coordinator Mark Faherty believes this flamingo may indeed be wild rather than another escapee. This conclusion is supported by the potential ripple effect from Hurricane Idalia. Flamingos have a history of being pushed out of their natural areas by hurricanes.

Many wild flamingo sightings outside of usual locations are tied to a tropical cyclone, including a 1972 sighting in Maryland linked to Hurricane Agnes. In September of 2023, multiple flamingo sightings were recorded in unusual conditions, including areas as far north as Ohio and Wisconsin. These birds were linked to a breeding population in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula that were almost certainly displaced by Idalia's fury in late August.

Hurricane Idalia's path in late August 2023:

Once flamingos are displaced by a large storm, they don’t immediately turn around and head back to where they were displaced from. Flamingos are generally not considered to be migratory. While some will move shorter distances seasonally, they typically don’t participate in long distance migration. When flamingos are flung longer distances from storms, they may wander around where they are rather than returning to where they came from. 

The birds that were spotted in northern areas in the late summer last year were gone by the middle of the fall. The flamingos likely began to move back southward as the climate cooled. With that said, Faherty mentioned that some of the displaced Yucatan birds were still living in Georgia, continuing to wander around. This lone flamingo may have gotten separated from their flock.

As the climate has begun to warm back up for the summer, one of these birds could have begun working up the coast, for unknown reasons. This could possibly be linked to the continued displaced status of the bird not knowing exactly where they are after Idalia, though this is just a theory. Shortly before the Cape Cod sighting, a flamingo was spotted on Long Island.

Photo by Richard Gifford

One of the big reasons why the 1964 sighting on Plum Island wasn’t ruled to be wild was due to the fact that the sighting couldn’t be clearly associated with a tropical cyclone. Whether or not the 2024 bird can be associated with Idalia will be questioned as the storm struck over nine months ago and there’s no way the flamingo survived a winter in New England. The previously mentioned theory of the bird coming north from Georgia after being displaced by Idalia will be something to be looked at very closely upon official review.

Since last weekend, there have been no more sightings of the bird in Massachusetts or New England. With that said, more sightings of a flamingo have been reported by those in Long Island, specifically on Cedar Beach this past Wednesday, according to sightings logged on Cornell University’s eBird app. While not confirmed, Faherty believes this is the same flamingo. The bird will likely continue to wander back southward, to more familiar territory.

The Massachusetts Avian Records Committee will need to review and vote on whether this bird was indeed wild. Preliminary signs point to this being the first confirmed wild flamingo in the state’s history, but the official report will come after the committee meets and reviews this sighting. 



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