The limpkin

There are many secretive critters here on Abaco. One of them is the limpkin. I often hear them in the bush and sometimes glimpse them skulking away into dense coppice. Their secretive nature keeps them from close inspection. Unfortunately, this recent road kill on the Cherokee rd. will probably be the only time I get to see one up close. In light of the photo opportunity availed by this poor bird I thought I would share a little bit about the limpkin since few even know it’s around.

Description: The limpkin (Aramus guarauna) is a medium-sized bird. They stand just over 60 cm high and can weigh about a kilogram. They’re similar in size to a night heron. Color is light to chocolate brown with white streaking on the neck, back, and chest. They have a long, curved bill and long legs.

Diet: Limpkins are dietary specialists that seem to consumer little other than large snails. They will pluck them from shallow water and extract the snail from it’s shell before eating it. Close inspection of their bill shows that they seem uniquely suited for the task as the lower mandible is sword-shaped. In fact, the bill is so modified that this one couldn’t even shut it completely. You could fit a few toothpicks between the mandibles even when the tips of the bill were touching. Despite popular knowledge that limpkins are snail specialists, they will include a variety of other foods in their diet. Most studies on limpkin come from south florida where large aquatic snails are quite common. However, in The Bahamas these large aquatic snails appear absent, or at least I’ve never seen one. This suggests that they might be eating other foods. I suspect crabs, lizards, and terrestrial snails may be more important components of the limpkin’s diet in The Bahamas. This however, would need more study.

Habitat: The habitats used by the limpkin seem varied. In Florida, limpkin use shallow marshes to forage for their preferred food. However, I almost never see them in the shallow freshwater marshes on Abaco. Rather, they seem to prefer brushy coppice with some tall emergent pines. I have seen them wading in shallow tidal creeks, but only once or twice and right next to some low, dense coppice. This association with brushy coppice seems fairly strong.

Call: One of the more exciting things about this odd bird is it’s call. It’s a very loud and spectacular crying scream that they tend to do at dusk. I will often hear two birds calling at the same time. They call in winter and summer, but it seems most raucous in summer. Follow this link to a recording. I suspect that you might even recognize the call!

Where can I see one? Well, if you are lucky enough to live in Marsh Harbour you might see them fairly frequently. I’ve been seeing several limpkin on the Friends of the Environment property for over five years now. I suspect they may have bred in the Coppice south of the main office this past June. But it’s best to come right at sundown if you want to chance an observation. My guess is that you’ll most likely hear them long before you get a good look at one. Otherwise, limpkin can be found in South Florida and much of South and Central America.

So, is this a heron or what? No. In fact, the evolutionary history of the limpkin is something of a mystery and the limkin is in a group all by itself, the Aramidae. Given this cloudy view of the limpkin’s evolutionary history, researchers have allied the limpkin with various bird groups over the years. Popular matches seem to be cranes, grebes, and trumpeters. However, the support for these allegiances is subject to debate.

So, that’s a quick summary of the limpkin. It’s a cool, but very strange bird that you’ve likely heard, but have never seen.

By | 2016-01-29T03:49:05-05:00 January 29th, 2016|Categories: Birds|Tags: , |1 Comment

About the Author:

Sean Giery
I am an evolutionary ecologist in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Connecticut. My research investigates how basic ecological interactions control fundamental biological processes such as sexual selection, communication, and predation.

One Comment

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    Rob Koury January 29, 2016 at 6:42 am

    Limkins: Simply excellent reporting and analysis.
    Rob Koury

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