Melissa Locker
February 26, 2018
Pat Canova/Getty Images

When you take a moment from your hectic day to stop and daydream of Florida, you probably think of sun, cerulean oceans, and pink flamingo flying across a blue sky.

Flamingos can be spotted soaking in the sun in Key West, wandering through the Everglades, shacking up at Southern zoos and parks, and wading through ponds and lakes across the Sunshine State. Outside of their natural environment, the leggy creatures are featured on t-shirts and souvenir hats, and tote bags, plastic versions grace the front lawns of homes across the South, and St. Petersburg’s Flamingo Festival is a pink-filled affair.

The graceful birds have been an integral part of the South’s scenery for generations, but how did they get here? Turns out that they’ve always been here. For years, scientists have debated whether Florida’s flamingos were native to the area, or like many in Florida, were simply tourists soaking up the sun and scenery. Now, a team of scientists think they have solved the puzzle. They published a study earlier this week revealing that the flamingos who call Key West and South Florida home are native to the Sunshine State.

In their article, published this week in The Condor: Ornithological Applications (perhaps read it after you finish the latest issue of Southern Living) the authors determined that “there is overwhelming evidence both from narrative accounts and from museum records that American Flamingos occurred naturally in large flocks in Florida.”

While the study may not seem like that big of a deal—since Florida has welcomed tourists of all kinds for years—it was very important for scientists to determine that flamingos are, in fact, native Floridians.

WATCH: There's A New Baby Flamingo At The Audubon Zoo

According to Atlas Obscura, back when Florida was still a wild, swampy world, flamingos were hunted in large numbers for their plumes, skin, and meat, and the historical population was nearly wiped out by 1900. The population has never quite returned to a healthy state. There wasn’t much that bird lovers or scientists could do about it, though, if the flamingos were just visiting from the Bahamas or Mexico. Now that we know flamingos are supposed to be here, scientists can work with government officials and wildlife enthusiasts to protect the species and hopefully boost their numbers.

That means someday, if Floridians band together, the South may have more real flamingos than plastic ones.