Do you live on or nearby a local lake? Have you ever walked by and noticed the large brown wading birds poking around the shoreline? Or maybe you’ve stepped outside just after one of our evening thunderstorms to breathe the fresh air and heard a haunting, skin-crawling cry coming out of the darkness. Did you run back inside and bolt the door or just smile, knowing that the limpkins are nearby?
Weighing a mere two-and-a-half pounds or so, this nearly two-foot-tall wader is a tropical species that ranges into Florida. Their favored habitats are shallow freshwater wetlands and our area lakes provide plenty of food, good shelter, and lots of watery habitat. With a preferred diet of apple snails, anyone strolling the lakefront areas where they feed will find piles of empty snail shells. Take note of the size of those weighty shells.
Limpkins wade near the water’s edge using their large brown eyes to spy for freshwater snails. In murky waters, they poke their long bill to probe the soft soils just under the shallow surface. While they will dine on frogs and other small aquatic creatures, our large apple snails make up the bulk of their diet. Once a shell is located, the bird carries it to the shoreline and grasps it tightly with long, clawed toes. Their long bill curves downward, ending with a little gap that makes it work just like a pair of tweezers to slip snails right out of their protective shelled covering. In a few motions, the slippery meal is extracted, swallowed and the limpkin heads back for another.
Their peculiar name is a nod to their slow, rolling gait, which seems to suggest injury or lameness. Don’t let that languorous, limping manner deceive you however, they are able to gallop away from danger and swim quite well. With feathers of deep olive brown marked with white mottling, they are quite impressive looking. Long, grey legs boast knobby knees and elegant, slender toes. Young are like little brown fluff balls, which quickly begin foraging behavior and can feed themselves about five weeks after hatching.
Lakefront residents are often surprised the first time they hear the loud wailing screams of these waders after dark. Wails, screams and loud clucks are quite surprising in their volume as are the fierce territorial disputes between males.