Thursday, May 6, 2021

The Amazing Mr. Limpkin

Stepping Stones

Regardless of the time of year, there a number of amazing birds that can be observed throughout South Florida. Some migrate here during the winter to get away from the ice and cold of the north, like the huge White Pelicans. During the summer, we can view the Least Terns that come here to nest, all the way from Venezuela. The Swallow-Tailed Kite is another visitor from South America during the hotter months here. All of these are migratory and not here all year long.

Limpkins can use canals and freshwater sources to obtain their primary food, apple snails.

The birds that call our area their home for 12 months are abundant as well. Osprey chicks are hatching as we speak. A variety of owls, herons, egrets and several birds of prey here as well. 

Just last week I saw a Peregrine Falcon around the Marco River as well as some Oyster Catchers and the beautiful Piliated Woodpecker. But one bird that gets the “What the heck is that?’ from many people is the Florida Limpkin.

In the United States, it is found in Florida, with occasional sightings in Southern Georgia, but it does range south through the Americas all the way to Argentina. Since its diet is primarily freshwater snails, it is highly unlikely you will find them along the salty shorelines. However, leaving Marco Island, they are frequently seen along Collier Blvd. in the swale by Manatee Road. Just on the other side of U.S. 41 on Collier, there are about a dozen of them feeding just before you get to Winding Cypress.

They don’t have any main relatives that call Florida home, but they are closely associated with Cranes and Rails. Limpkins are often mistaken for juvenile Ibis, which are dark in color and have a curved beak as well. 

With their primary diet being snails, the Limpkin has adapted over time to form a scissor-like beak, which allows them to extract the snail from the curved shell. They will obtain their food by foraging in shallow waters or probing in mud. In addition to snails, you might see them grab a frog, lizard, worm or an insect.

Because of this diet, Limpkins will be found in marshy, shallow swamps, along the banks of freshwater lakes, sloughs and, as mentioned above, along the swales and drainage canals of the roadsides. Primarily feeding during the day, they will also take advantage of a bright moonlight to catch an extra meal or two.

Back in the 19th Century, these birds were nearly hunted to extinction but have recovered thanks to protective laws. If there is a major threat to Limpkins today it would be the loss of their primary food source, the apple snail. Habitat loss and the drainage of our freshwater wetland systems have decreased the snail population. The increase in nutrition in the waters and pollution also pose a threat.

Their dark brown feathers provide great camouflage when they are resting among the trees and brush. Growing to just over two feet tall they have a wingspan of just under four feet. If you hear a Limpkin call, you will not forget it. It has been equated to a scream, even a banshee-like yell.

So, next time you are in the wild and see a dark brown bird feeding, or if you are driving along a local highway and you say, “What the heck is that?” think of these amazing Limpkins.

Bob is a Naturalist on board the dolphin survey boat Dolphin Explorer. He is the author of two books and a regular speaker at area venues. He is also an award-winning columnist for this paper and… Bob loves his wife very much! 

One response to “The Amazing Mr. Limpkin”

  1. Joe smith says:

    Pair of limpkins have been in our lake for over a week. Male screams almost all night and morning. The female spent all day on our bank eating muscles.we have never had these here. We took several pics. Northern worth county in Georgia. Also had an osprey fly over yesterday. first one of these we have ever seen also.

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