Limpkins are another bird species I saw at the Field Museum (there were a lot of birds there). Although the name ‘limpkin’ may seem like a strange one, there’s at least a reason these birds earned the name: apparently limpkins sometimes walk with a gait that makes it look like they are limping.

Limpkins are weird birds for more reasons than just the way they walk. Though they look a bit like cranes, limpkins actually have no close relatives. They are the only species in the family Aramidae. Limpkins are found in South America, Central America and in Florida. They are found around freshwater, particularly in areas that have tall vegetation, such as reeds.

A limpkin just hanging out in some water.
Image by Henry from Lake Worth, United States, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

These birds are fairly large, reaching lengths of 64-73 cm, and wingspans of over 100 cm. Asides from males being slightly larger than females, there is little sexual dimorphism in limpkins. Both genders are fairly boring in colouration, with brown feathers streaked with white, grey legs and a yellowy-brown bill.

The main diet of limpkins is snails, and their bills are designed to deal with the tricky prey that snails can be. The apple snail forms the majority of the birds’ diets, and distribution of limpkins often follows availability of apple snails. Limpkins wander around in shallow water, using their long bills to search for snails. If they find one, the birds take it back to shore and extract the juicy snail from inside. Though it sounds fairly simple, it isn’t. I’ve never tried to get a snail outside of its shell before, but I bet I couldn’t do it without breaking the snail’s shell.

Limpkins can, though, and in only about 10 or 20 seconds. The tips of limpkins’ bills are slightly separated, which makes the bill act like tweezers. As well, limpkins’ bills are usually curved to the right, which is the same direction apple snails’ shells turn.

Mmmm snails. I’m pretty sure I’ve tried snails and they were gross.
Image by David Roach, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Limpkins are generally solitary birds, with males vigorously defending territory. They have a fairly distinct call, which is often described as a wail or scream. The call of the limpkin has been used as sound effects in a number of productions, most notably in Tarzan and in Harry Potter as the call of hippogriffs.

For a fairly boring looking bird, the limpkin is quite cool. I can appreciate any animal that makes its living eating snails. I certainly wouldn’t want to.

Cover image by Pamala, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons