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Where To See A Limpkin

Dear Bird Folks,

I just read about your recent trip to Florida and your search for scrub-jays. In your story you also talked about other birds, but you didn’t mention seeing any Limpkins. I’m headed south in a few weeks and would very much like to see one. Did you see any Limpkins on your trip and where are the best places to look for them?

– Todd, Brewster, MA


You bet I did, Todd,

I most certainly saw Limpkins on my latest trip and I will tell you where to look for them in a minute. But first, I think I should explain to everyone else what a Limpkin is. After all, the name “Limpkin” sounds less like a bird and more like a condition men have to take pills for.

It’s likely that many Cape Codders aren’t familiar with Limpkins and this is understandable. In North America, these odd birds are essentially a Florida-only species. Looking like a cross between a young night-heron and an immature ibis, the Limpkin is a large, brown wading bird that is found in Florida’s freshwater swamps and marshes. Even though they resemble herons and ibises, they are not related to them. In fact, Limpkins are considered to be “monotypic,” meaning they have no family members. Therefore, there are no Lesser Limpkins, or Black-capped Limpkins or Royal Limpkins. It’s just one and done. In addition to not being related to herons, they don’t eat like them either. Herons mostly feed on fish and small reptiles, but Limpkins have a more refined diet. They eat snails and…well, that’s just about it. Snails, in particular apple snails, make up the bulk of their diet. (BTW: The apple snail is a species of freshwater mollusk. They contain no fruit, nor are they accessories for the latest iPhone.)

When hunting, herons typically stand perfectly still, waiting to grab unsuspecting prey with lightning fast jabs. Limpkins don’t have to be nearly as quiet or quick. After all, they are only going after snails and snails aren’t known for their speed. Instead of standing still, Limpkins hunt by poking and probing in and around aquatic plants. Once a snail has been captured, the bird retreats to the nearest bit of land. How do they extract the meat? There are several ways in which shellfish-eating birds deal with hard shells. For example, eiders simply swallow clams whole and let their gizzards grind up the shells. Oystercatchers use their sturdy beaks to forcefully smash shells open. But the most entertaining method of cracking open shellfish belongs to the gulls. They open clams and mussels by merely dropping them from the sky and letting gravity and any hard surface do the work. By contrast, Limpkins use a more skilled approach, one I witnessed up close and personal on my recent trip to Florida.

I believe I wrote about Lakeland’s wonderful Circle B Bar Reserve a few years ago, which is why I didn’t mention going there again this time. (I don’t want to be accused of plagiarizing myself.) Anyone visiting Central Florida should visit this reserve. It’s way better than standing in line a theme park. The Circle B Bar Reserve is a former cattle ranch that is now noted for great birding and having ginormous alligators. (I think the gators ate all the cows.) It was here that I had a cool Limpkin encounter. I was walking along one of the quieter trails, when a Limpkin strolled up out of the marsh. The bird was carrying a rather large apple snail (just like the books say they do) and dropped it directly in front of me. Even though the snail’s operculum (the trap door that seals up the shell) was already shut tight, the bird had little trouble popping it open and separating out the edible portions. Limpkin bills have a slight curve to the right, which is perfect for entering the snail’s curved shell and snipping out the escargot hiding inside. They only things needed now were herb butter and garlic.

The brown, speckled Limpkins are rather generic looking wading birds and are often ignored because they don’t have flashy colors or extravagant breeding plumes. (And I’m probably the only person who ever got excited about watching one open a snail.) However, the Limpkin does have something that separates it from the other marsh birds, and that’s its voice. Sounding like a cross between someone being murdered and a cat with its tail caught under a rocking chair, the Limpkins’ loud, eerie screams are the signature sounds of Florida’s wetlands. I’m sure more than one camper has crawled deeper into his or her sleeping bag after hearing Limpkins calling at night. Like most of Florida’s wildlife, the endless push for more condos and golf courses has taken a toll on the Limpkin population. Yet, they can still be found throughout much of the state. Last month I saw a family of them at the Viera Wetlands, and the Circle B Bar Preserve had at least six of them (and one less apple snail). Both of those locations are well worth visiting, but Limpkins can also be found in a host of other locations in the state. If you are walking near a wetland and hear an eerie scream (and smell butter and garlic), you are most certainly going to find Limpkins.

Good luck in your search for Limpkins, Todd. I don’t think you’ll have trouble finding them. Remember, they look like young night-herons or immature ibises, but they aren’t related to them. Recent DNA tests suggest that Limpkins are more closely related to rails and cranes. Also, based on their love for snails, there’s probably some French blood in there, too.