Limpkin Life History

Habitat

Habitat Marshes

Limpkins favor shallow freshwater swamp forests, ponds, lakes, sloughs, canals, and marshes, especially areas where slow-moving creeks and rivers are present—all places where apple snails are found. These areas often feature aquatic plants including duckweed, spatterdock, pickerel weed, sawgrass, and wild rice, along with exotic invasive plants like hydrilla, water lettuce, and water hyacinth. In northern Florida and southernmost Georgia, Limpkins are very scarce and local and found in spring-fed river systems. Wet sugarcane fields also attract Limpkins if snails are present.

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Food

Food Aquatic invertebrates

Limpkins eat almost exclusively apple snails (genus Pomacea), plus at least three other native freshwater snail species and five species of freshwater mussels. They also eat small amounts of seeds and insects, along with lizards, frogs, insects, crustaceans such as crayfish, grasshoppers, worms, and aquatic midges. Where the water is clear, Limpkins hunt for snails and mussels by sight, walking along the water’s edge or into the shallows (rarely wading deeply) and seizing prey quickly with the bill. When waters are muddy, or have extensive vegetation, they probe into the water rapidly, rather like ibis, sometimes with the head submerged. If vegetation cover is extensive, Limpkins often walk out onto the mat of floating vegetation to hunt snails that cling to the undersides of leaves and stalks. To extract the mollusk from its shell, Limpkins place the forceps-like tip of their bill into the snail or mussel to cut the adductor muscle, using scissoring motions. They then discard the shells, often in a pile if prey is abundant in one spot. Limpkins readily forage at night, even during rain. Many observers report that they ingest rotten wood, but it’s not known why. It is possible that the bacteria in the wood aid in the digestion of food or that the wood provides needed nutrients not found in prey.

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Nesting

Nest Placement

Nest Ground

The male generally selects the nest site, indicating his preference by pulling at vegetation around the spot and calling softly. Limpkins will place a nest almost anywhere, but usually not far from water, and most are partly hidden. They nest in tall marsh grasses, on top of floating vegetation, in cabbage palms, in live oaks and bald-cypresses (up to 46 feet high), in tree cavities, in old Osprey nests, and many other places.

Nest Description

Males do most of the nest building, but females often participate, especially near the end of construction. The roughly circular nests are made of any sorts of vegetation found near the nest site. Some nests are woven and sturdy, others appear loose and precarious. The foundation of the nest is made of sticks, stalks, vines, leaves, and rushes, and the nest is lined with finer material such as Spanish moss, though nests in aquatic vegetation usually lack lining. Limpkins also construct a “brooding platform,” similar to a nest, in which young can be kept together and sheltered once they are old enough to move around. This platform is similar to a nest and is often far from the nest site. Nests are variable in size but average about 20 inches in diameter by 3 inches deep.

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size:4-7 eggs
Number of Broods:1-3 broods
Egg Length:2.2-2.5 in (5.5-6.4 cm)
Egg Width:1.6-1.8 in (4.1-4.6 cm)
Incubation Period:26-28 days
Egg Description:

Variable. Light grayish white or deep olive with brownish or purplish gray streaks and blotches.

Condition at Hatching:

Covered with down and able to swim, walk, and run.

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Behavior

Behavior Probing

Limpkins are marvelously well suited to their swamp-woods habitat. They are agile tree climbers and equally at home balancing on floating vegetation, for which their long toes provide support and distribute their weight. Like rails, they swim well, holding the tail out of the water much as rails do. Also like rails, males establish and defend territories and fly, walk, or swim rapidly to confront rivals that enter the territory, displacing them physically, flapping wings, jumping, and giving loud calls. Males also sometimes engage in a ballet of charge-and-retreat motions, which recalls a stylized bullfight, or even tree-climbing contests, with loud counter-calling by both. Actual combat is rare but involves kicking with the feet and jabbing with the bill. Females regularly drive other females and juveniles out of the territory as well. When courting, female Limpkins visit multiple territories held by males until a pair bond is established. The pair spends hours standing close together, and males often bring food or bits of rotten wood to females. After courtship feeding, pairs copulate, the male making soft rattling calls. Females sometimes leave their mate to court an unpaired male, which scientists term “serial polyandry,” or having multiple male partners at different times. Limpkin territories range in size from approximately 2 to 10 acres and often are defended year-round. At times of great snail abundance, territories can be quite small, with hundreds of pairs occupying a small area. During the nonbreeding season, small flocks of Limpkins often gather, believed to consist mostly of females and young birds.

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Conservation

Conservation Low Concern

There is almost no data on Limpkin population numbers and trends. In Florida, it has declined from abundant in the nineteenth century to uncommon and local in the present day. In 1970 some 8,000–10,000 individuals were thought to live in Lake Okeechobee alone, but in 1994 an estimate suggested 3,000 to 6,000 pairs remained in the entire state. In Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America it is much more numerous. Partners in Flight gives the species a 10 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating it is a species of low conservation concern. Limpkins were once abundant in ​Florida, but were easy to catch or shoot and were almost eradicated by hunters. Habitat loss, including conversion of wetlands to agriculture, flood control, and development, further contributed to the decline. With more than half the wetlands in central and southern Florida having been lost during the last century, apple snail habitat has been greatly reduced. Water-level manipulations that harm apple snail populations still occur in the widely engineered and highly political water management environment of southern Florida. Nevertheless, recent accomplishments and future plans for wetland restoration in the greater Everglades and the Upper St. Johns River Marsh offer hope for improved apple snail and Limpkin habitat.

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Credits

Bryan, Dana C. (2002). Limpkin (Aramus guarauna), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Kushlan, J. A., M. J. Steinkamp, K. C. Parsons, J. Capp, M. A. Cruz, M. Coulter, I. Davidson, L. Dickson, N. Edelson, R. Elliott, R. M. Erwin, S. Hatch, S. Kress, R. Milko, S. Miller, K. Mills, R. Paul, R. Phillips, J. E. Saliva, W. Sydeman, J. Trapp, J. Wheeler and K. Wohl (2002). Waterbird conservation for the Americas: The North American waterbird conservation plan, version 1. Washington, DC, USA.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, USA.

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