Shy water birds called limpkins venture into Arkansas from tropics, hungry for invasive apple snails - petsitterbank

Shy water birds called limpkins venture into Arkansas from tropics, hungry for invasive apple snails

A funny looking, escargot-eating, turkey-size bird with a strange sounding name has made its way into Arkansas and Oklahoma.

It limps around in marshes and woodlands of the Natural State with increasing regularity, and its presence here could be a harbinger of good news for a troubled environment.

This shy, secretive bird is a limpkin (Aramus guarauna). It takes its name from the awkwardness of its gait as it slips into weeds, reeds and brambles to hide, especially when disturbed by a predator. The “limp” of the limpkin is a survival mechanism the bird uses to suggest it’s injured, luring a predator away from its nest or feeding area. The bird shares this behavioral trait with other ground nesters, most notably the killdeer.

Limpkins are known for their loud wails, which can be heard at night or dawn.

Hunted to the brink of extinction in the early 20th century, the bird resembles a small crane, ibis or long-legged rail. Limpkins are found primarily in the American tropics and in Florida.

According to Robert Dobbs of Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries, limpkins pose no downside for other wading birds because their biological niche is so narrow: They want to eat snails.

Their long, slightly curved bills are perfectly suited to extracting apple snails from their shells. And so, the primary diet of the limpkin has been the apple snail, and for hundreds of years most limpkins in the United States were found only in Florida where such snails were once abundant.

Now though, the native Florida apple snails are scarce because of drought, hurricanes, pollution, urbanization, agricultural run-off and habitat degradation. Limpkins appear to be migrating northward, where other types of snails have become available.

NEW TO THESE PARTS

The first sighting and photographing of a limpkin in Arkansas was by Gene Sparling.

Sparling is the same kayaker/outdoorsman/woodcarver who spied a large white-backed woodpecker in the swamps of eastern Arkansas in 2005. His sighting and a subsequent video spawned worldwide interest in the presumed rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker. His woodpecker sighting was not convincingly verified for everyone in the science community; but the fact that limpkins are now in Arkansas is well documented.

In 2021, Sparling saw, heard and photographed the limpkin as it foraged along a creek in the backyard of his home studio in Garland County near Hot Springs. He immediately texted a few friends about seeing the bird, and sent them the images from his phone.

Over the next days and weeks, birders flocked to Sparling’s residence and nearby marshes to try to find the limpkin, without success.

Lyndal York, curator of Arkansas Audubon’s Rare Bird Database, told me via email, “We have no reports or even a hint of a report of a Limpkin in Arkansas prior to Sparling’s in 2021.”

York added, “Other than the 2021 record, all the reports this year came in the month of May.” York wrote that Rachel Rucker found a bird in the St. Francis swamps in Craighead County on May 3. Sarah Morris found another bird at Bell Slough (Faulkner County) on May 14. Two birds were found in Washington County at Lake Sequoyah on May 18 by Todd Ballinger.

“All these reports have good photo documentation,” York wrote. “There was a photo of a Limpkin posted on an Arkansas wildlife website that was reported to be taken at Lake Norrell, but the person would not file an official report so we are not counting that possible bird.

“There are no reports of any possible nesting activity.”

As limpkins are seen and documented, York said, anyone can check their whereabouts at the website arbirds.org/Records/. Use the pull-down menu to select the bird you are interested in to view rare bird archives.

In addition to the official reports of limpkins in the Rare Bird Database, other sightings have been posted on ARBird-L, an email discussion forum for Arkansas bird watchers:

◼️ David Arbour, field biologist with the US Forest Service, saw one limpkin at Red Slough just west of the Arkansas/Oklahoma line in late April, and another joined it in late May. He saw them together June 16.

◼️ Todd Ballinger saw the first limpkin ever reported in a National Wildlife Management Area in Arkansas.

◼️ Two limpkins were spotted on a lake near Tulsa.

TERRITORIAL SHIFT?

The discovery of a never-before-seen bird in a US state happens from time to time. In recent years, Arkansas has hosted at least three such birds: a rosy finch, a brown booby, and a forked-tailed flycatcher. Once seen, however, these rare birds move on, scarcely to be seen again. The limpkin is different.

After its first sighting, the frequent reappearance of the species in other parts of the state has led some birding enthusiasts and ornithologists to believe that limpkins are here to stay, maybe even to flourish. A pattern of northern range co-expansion of limpkins and apple snails has already been documented in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana, Texas and the western slope of Mexico. And in June, limpkins were seen in Minnesota and Nebraska for the first time.

For a fuller analysis see arkansasonline.com/627snail.

[Video not showing up above? Click here to watch » arkansasonline.com/627snail/]

In Oklahoma, one well qualified observer witnessed a limpkin eating a mussel, which suggests their diet might be expanding along with their range.

“It really looks like limpkins are getting a foothold” in Louisiana, said Robert Dobbs, that state’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries non-game ornithologist. “Seemingly, as soon as they showed up, they started breeding. We’re only talking about three or four pairs that we know of at this point, but that’s remarkable for a bird that was first discovered in the state only four years ago. “

APPLE SNAILS

Apple snails are not one species but rather a family of large, freshwater snails scientifically known as Ampullariidae. Limpkins have a ravenous appetite for these fist-size creatures. The bill of the limpkin has evolved to split the heavy shell of the apple snail and eat its high-protein flesh. Only one other bird species has a specialized bill with this ability. (More about that bird later.)

The Florida apple snails (Pomacea paludosa) were once abundant in the Everglades. Pollution, urban sprawl, agricultural practices, years of drought and hurricanes diminished suitable habitat for these domestic snails — and the limpkins that feed upon them. However, three non-native types of apple snails from South America — Pomacea machulata, Pomaca canaliculata and Pomacea insularum — have been introduced to the continental US, most likely released irresponsibly by aquarium enthusiasts who kept them as pets.

[Listen to the podcast Capitol & Scott episode on “Mystery snails” in Arkansas here: arkansasonline.com/711snail/]

The introduced snails are a blessing and a curse. For the limpkins and other snail-eating creatures, a South American snail provides a nutritious new food source; but the South American apple snail poses a serious threat to many native aquatic plants, rice farming and human health. The snail’s flesh, if eaten by humans as escargot, can transmit a deadly parasite called rat lung worm.

“We are just now beginning to realize alarming ill effects of the non-native snail,” says Steffan Pierre, a graduate student at the University of Central Florida whose master’s thesis examined the apple snails. “They produce significantly more eggs, grow bigger faster and live longer. We don’t fully know their impact on wetland plant communities here in Florida, but they have been reported to negatively affect storm-water treatment areas by consuming large quantities of vegetation. “

Florida Water Management District officials fear that the snails, if not contained, pose a threat to 57,000 acres of marshes built at a cost of $2 billion to rid fragile wetlands of agricultural runoff. Hordes of the snails devoured vegetation in a 750-acre man-made marsh designed to filter phosphorous out of the Everglades.

According to a bulletin published by the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture and the Arkansas Plant Board, these apple snails are among “The Top Ten Invasive Species of Concern in Arkansas.”

The bulletin states that “this snail poses a serious threat to rice and natural wetlands. They survive dry conditions by burying in moist soil. Although they can tolerate near-freezing temperatures, egg laying starts at water temperatures of 65 degrees F. Egg clusters of 200-300 strawberry-colored eggs are laid every two to three weeks, always above water.”

NATURE’S ANTIDOTS?

The upside is that limpkins have a ravenous appetite for the invasive apple snails moving (and not at a snail’s pace) into Arkansas waterways and marshes. Once established, the snails can overpopulate, outcompete native species and destroy aquatic vegetation.

But as the number of limpkins in the Natural State increases, they might check the snail’s mischief by gobbling them up in big numbers.

If the limpkins are not up to the task by themselves, perhaps they could be aided by another bird that has never before been seen in Arkansas — the snail kite.

[Gallery not showing? See photos here: arkansasonline.com/711birds]

CHOWING DOWN

The snail kite is a hawk-like bird that shares much with the limpkin. Both are native to the Everglades; both are under considerable ecological risk; and both feed primarily upon apple snails. After the invasive apple snails were found to be in the Everglades in 2010, populations of both rose birds.

In the 1970s only 68 snail kites were thought to live in Florida. Today it’s estimated that there are about 400 nesting pairs. The numbers of snail kites still are considered dangerously low, even after the recent rebound.

According to the Cornell Lab’s website All About Birds, limpkins and snail kites evolved to feed almost entirely on freshwater apple snails: “These very different bird species co-exist peacefully for the most part, largely segregated by their methods of hunting.”

Limpkins hunt snails in dense reeds and other vegetation, wading on their long legs and using their long bills to move floating vegetation to look for them, even in muddy water.

Snail kites forage from perches or while flying slowly above shallow, clear, open water. They drop onto snails they spot and seize them with talons (never the bill); then they perch before extracting the snail from its shell with their distinctive hooked bill.

Snail kites sometimes try to steal apple snails from limpkins’ jaws. “When kites are starving for snails, they try to eat turtles or crayfish but that can’t sustain them,” says Paul Grey, Audubon’s bird expert in Florida.

As the Johnny-come-lately apple snail population expands northward, limpkins follow. A similar northern increase in the range of the snail kite into Arkansas has not been documented, but it makes biological sense that such a thing could occur.

A likely impediment to such an expansion of the kite’s range would be the bird’s inability to adjust to lower northernly temperatures. However, snail kites thrive in areas of South America where temperatures are as low as or lower than those in Arkansas. If the snails and limpkins have come here, the snail kite might not be far behind.

Jerry Butler writes frequently about Arkansas birds and the people who enjoy them. Share your stories with him at

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Gallery: Limpkins and apple snails

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