LIMPKIN (Aramus guarauna)

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Limpkin picture
Family: Aramidae

Order: Gruiformes

STATUS: Species of Special Concern

DESCRIPTION: A medium-sized wading bird (approximately 66 centimeters, wingspread 104 centimeters, bill 9 to 12 centimeters) with long legs, neck, and bill. Generally olive-brown in appearance with white spotting on the neck, back, and upper wings. Although the plumage of the limpkin is drab and indistinct, its limping gait, from which the name is derived, and low, wailing call are unique. Newly fledged juveniles may be distinguished by a lighter color overall, and noticeably thicker, paler, legs. The limpkin has a slender, and slightly decurved bill that is well adapted for extracting freshwater snails, the limpkin's main food, from their shells. Sexes are alike though males tend to be larger than females.

HABITAT AND DISTRIBUTION: Limpkins feed in shallow waters, and consequently inhabit slow-moving freshwater rivers and streams, marshes, and lake shores. This choice of habitat appears to depend strongly on food availability. The range of the limpkin includes nearly all of peninsular Florida, north to southeastern Georgia, and south to Cuba, Mexico, and Central and South America. A slow, long-term decline in the population of limpkins has occurred in this country since the 1920's. This trend, coupled with the limpkin's reliance on a rapidly disappearing wetlands habitat, points to a precarious future for this bird. The major portion of the limpkin's range lies within Florida.

LIFE HISTORY AND ECOLOGY: In Florida, the foods of the limpkin are largely apple snails (Pomacea paludosa) and other snails, as well as freshwater mussels, and to a lesser extent lizards, insects, frogs, worms, and crustaceans.

The peak of nesting may correspond to availability of foods. In Florida, active limpkin nests have been observed, from December through August, constructed at water levels in open marshes, in low brushes, or in trees that overhang deep streams and rivers. The nest is composed of aquatic vegetation matted together with a central depression. The usual clutch consists of 4 to 8 eggs. They are pale, dull, buffy spotted and stained with brown blotches. Incubation of the eggs is equally shared by both parents. Young are precocial and leave the nest the day after hatching. Yet they stay in close association with the parent until at least the time they fly.

BASIS OF STATUS CLASSIFICATION: At one time limpkins were shot extensively for food. However, the population decline it has experienced in past decades is more readily attributable to the degradation and disappearance of its wetland habitat as a consequence of land development. Draining, channeling, and filling wetland areas has resulted in altered water levels which, in turn, have adversely altered the limpkin's food supply. The above unique feature, its dependence upon wetlands, and an apparent long-term declining population prompt concern for the future of this unique Florida bird, so in 1979 the limpkin was classified as a "species of special concern" by the state.

HABITAT GUIDELINES: Protection of this species consists of providing an effective zone that buffers the nesting sites. This "buffer zone" may extend into upland habitat. The extent of these buffers is based on existing State and/or Federal guidelines, or reflect the recommendations of the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission.

Any activity proposed within a buffer zone would be subject to review. Activities that could be allowed in the buffer zone would be those activities which would not have any long term detrimental impact on the nesting birds. The following would be considered when making this determination: (1) the type of activity or construction planned and its' long term impacts; (2) the nature of the natural community that makes up the buffer zone (does it provide a visual barrier for any proposed nesting activities?); and (3) the timing of the proposed construction (does it occur outside the nesting season?).

RECOMMENDATIONS: State and federal laws afford the limpkin protection from intentional molestation by humans. However, as yet no laws protect the bird from the indirect harassment, in the form of habitat destruction, that occurs in conjunction with human encroachment into wild areas. At the current rate of habitat destruction, conservation of additional habitat areas is warranted and would enhance the security of the statewide population. This conservation maybe accomplished by identifying important wetland areas where wetland regulations may offer some degree of habitat protection.

Nesbitt, S.A. 1978. Limpkin. Pp. 86-88. In H.W. Kale, II, (ed.), Rare and Endangered Biota of Florida. Birds. University Presses of Florida, Gainesville, FL.

Content updated Date February 24, 2005