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What is a Limpkin?

By Debra Durkee
Updated May 21, 2024
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The limpkin is a heron-like bird native to tropical areas in the Americas. Also known as the courlan brun or the carreo, it resembles cranes although it has no immediate familial relatives. It makes its nests near the shores of freshwater bodies of water or rivers and in marshes or swamps. Limpkins have a distinctive, screaming cry and are surprisingly graceful birds in spite of their awkward appearance.

Both genders are similar in appearance, with a mature length of between 25 and 28 inches (about 63.5 and 71 cm) and a wingspan of between about 40 and 42 inches (about 101 and 106 cm). Feathers are mostly brown, and spotted with white on the wings, neck, and head. The limpkin has an elongated beak, long legs, and a heron-like neck. Its distinctive beak has a gap near the end, making it idea for opening the shells of its primary food, the apple snail. The tip of the beak is sharp and used for cutting the meaty part of the snail from its shell in a process that takes about 15 seconds.

Native habitats of the limpkin occur throughout the tropical areas of South America and along the Central and North American Gulf of Mexico coastline. The farthest north the limpkin can be found is the state of Florida, where it was once endangered because of excessive hunting. The limpkin is an easy target, and early settlers in the area testified the birds were so mild-mannered that hunters could walk up to them and take them off their nests.

Nests are built anywhere from on the ground to up to 40 feet (about 12 meters) above the ground. Made of sticks, vines, leaves, and other nearby forms of vegetation, the nest holds between three and eight eggs per season. The color of the eggs varies from gray to olive and purple.

When the young limpkins hatch, they are already able to swim and walk, and are covered in soft, downy feathers. They leave the nest after only a single day, and are capable of following their parents. Juveniles look much the same as adults, but have fewer white feathers.

Largely a solitary creature, the limpkin is most active at night. Males are extremely territorial, and when one invades the territory of another the result is a display of charging, threatening, and screaming. In areas along the Amazon River, the folklore of some of the indigenous peoples says that when the night air fills with the screams of many limpkins, the rivers will not rise any farther.

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