The Limpkin is a gangly brown white bird. They can look like giant Rails or resemble juvenile Night Herons. Limpkins are tropical wetland birds with their ranges reaching till Florida. Limpkins are well known for their haunting cries at night that resemble Banshee wails and these cries can be unforgettable as there is something very eerie about them.

About Limpkins

Limpkins or Aramus guarauna are from the family of Aramidae and are the only members of the particular family. However, these birds are resembled Herons and Ibises in general but are considered to be more closely related to Rails and Cranes.

The English name, Limpkin is related to the word limp probably because of the apparent limp gait of these birds as observed by the early European Settlers perhaps when pursued with dogs. In such situations, the usually slow and careful Limpkins are gallop away at an unexpected speed.

Limpkins are avid Snail eater and their beaks are adapted to de-shell snails. Their primary diet consists of Apple Snails and their long bills with the twisted ends facilitate getting the soft meat of the snails out of their shells.

Aren’t these tweezers-beaked big birds with their cryptic otherworldly wailing starting to seem pretty interesting already? Let’s find out more about them and their secret little lives!

● Limpkin Photos, Color Pattern, Song
● Limpkin Size, Eating behavior, Habitat
● Limpkin Range and Migration, Nesting


Limpkin Color Pattern

Limpkins can be divided into the Brownback variety and the speckled variety based on their color patterns. The Brownback Limpkins are a more uniformly rich brown. These birds have a solid brown back but have white speckles in the neck area and wing coverts.

The speckled Limpkin is more heavily marked than the brown back Limpkins. They too have a similar tone of rich brown color but have white speckles on the back, necks, wing coverts, and pretty much everywhere.

Description and Identification

Limpkins can be easily identified as they have very unique features than any other water bird. The apparently Limping Gait that brought it its name is one of those features. The rich tone of the brown color and the stark white marking all over their bodies are also pretty unique. Being the only member of the Aramidae family, these birds can be called “one of a kind”. Limpkins are also easily recognizable because of their night calls that uncannily resemble the wails of the mythical entity, the Banshee.

Limpkins can be found looking for snails, especially Apple snails in freshwater wetlands, agricultural areas, canals, and ditches. The heaps of snail shells near the water streams can be a marking of the Limpkins’ presence. These birds probe very carefully and calmly and appear very placid except for the times of territorial conflicts between males, which are dramatic encounters involving chasing, calling, flying, and stylized combat.

Limpkin Song

Limpkins have a haunting otherworldly call that nearly resembles a banshee wail. Male Limpkins gave a long looped trachea like Cranes and they use these to make loud, grating, piercing high-pitched screeches and wails.

During Courtship or spotting predators like alligators, Limpkins make a rattling sound. Females often give out a soft “gon” call in many contexts. These calls are frequent and are in a slowing series as the mate delivers a rhythmic, Crane-like chorus of its wails. This duet is not quite a song but is memorable. Numerous writers of natural history and fiction have been moved to describe the chilling sensations produced by this sound, especially at night.

Except for an array of different kinds of calls with different contexts, Limpkins also make a certain kind of sound. The outermost flight feather or the primary feather in these birds is sickle-shaped but broad at the tip. This feature is especially pronounced in males. This feather can be used to make a loud buzzing and whirring sound called winnowing when the bird flies. This sound is apparently used to mark territory both during the day and night.

Limpkin Size

Limpkins are birds that are of the size of Geese. These birds are almost sized like Herons and have heavy bodies. Relatively, Limpkins are slightly bigger than Night Herons and much smaller than Great Egrets. The size of their bill is fairly long and thick that it looks like a larger version of a Rail’s bill.

Limpkins measure about 25.0-28.7 inches (63.5-72.9 cm) length-wise and weigh around 37.0-48.3 ounces (1050-1370 g). The wingspan of these birds is a good 39.8-42.1 inches (101-107 cm).

Limpkin Behavior

Limpkins are marvelously versatile birds. They are agile tree climbers and are equally comfortable balancing on floating vegetation, thus these birds are the residents of swamp-wood habitats. They have adapted long toes that help them distribute their body weight perfectly and provide support as they slowly probe the swamp waters. Limpkins are also great swimmers like Rails and swim while holding their tails up. Male Limpkins establish territories and they are aggressively particular about keeping other males out of those territories. When rivals come into their sites, males fly, walk or swim rapidly to confront them, displacing them physically while flapping wings, jumping, and giving loud calls.

Sometimes, the male Limpkins also 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. However, actual combat is rare but involves kicking with the feet and jabbing with the bill. 

The female Limpkins actively drive other females and juveniles out of the territories. In courting practices, female Limpkins visit multiple territories owned by males until a pair is created. The pair spends hours standing close together. Males often bring food or bits of rotten wood to females. After courtship feeding, pairs copulate while the male makes soft rattling calls.

Sometimes, female Limpkins leave their partners to court a new unpaired male. In scientific terms this practice is called Serial Polyandry, having multiple male partners during different points of time.

Limpkin territories are pretty huge in size that is well-defended all year round; however, during the seasons when snails are in abundance, the sizes of the territories shrink down as a huge number of pairs come to probe in the same area. During the non-breeding season, small flocks of Limpkins often gather, believed to consist mostly of females and young birds.

Limpkin Diet

Limpkins have a primary diet of snails, especially Apple Snails. Along with apple snails, they also eat at least three other native species of snails and 5 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.

When the probing waters are clear, Limpkins catch snails and mussels merely by sight. However, when the waters are a bit muddy, they probe almost like Ibises, rapidly with their bills; sometimes with their heads submerged. When the waters are completely muddy and extensively covered with floating vegetation, these birds balance themselves on the vegetation and probe under the stems and leaves to catch the snails that cling to them.

To extract the soft meat from the hard shells of snails and mussels, 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 the prey is abundant in one spot.

Limpkins actively forage during the nights, even when it rains. They also ingest pieces of rotten wood for unknown reasons. But the possible reason for such dietary behavior is that the bacteria from rotten wood helps in food digestion or helps maintain the nutrition that Limpkins do not get from their primary mollusk diet.

Limpkin Habitat

Limpkins are mostly found in shallow freshwater swamp forests, ponds, lakes, sloughs, canals, and marshes. Areas, where slow-moving creeks and rivers are present, are also favored by these birds. Basically, Limpkins are found in all places where apple snails are found. These areas usually foster aquatic plants including duckweed, spatterdock, pickerelweed, saw grass, 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 are not found much locally. They are rather found in spring-fed river systems. Wet sugarcane fields also attract Limpkins if snails are present.

Range and Migration

Limpkins are found in the peninsula of Florida, southern Mexico through the Caribbean, and Central America to northern Argentina. They were formerly found in the Okefenokee Swamp in southern Georgia. In South America, Limpkins are found widely in the east of the Andes. In the west, its range extends only to the Equator.

Limpkins undertake localized migrations, although the extent of it is still not fully understood. In some parts in the northern part of the range, females and a few males leave the breeding areas at the end of summer and return at the end of winter. In Brazil, birds breeding in some seasonal marshes leave during the dry season and return again with the rains. Birds may also migrate between Florida and Cuba, as several limpkins on the Florida Keys and Dry Tortugas have been reported.

Limpkin Lifecycle

After the elaborate courting practices and feeding, the pairs copulate. The nest sites are chosen by male Limpkins and the work of building the nest is mostly done by the male however, the females also participate. The female Limpkin lays a clutch of 4-7 eggs that are variably light grayish-white or deep olive with brownish or purplish gray streaks and blotches. These eggs measure about 2.2-2.5 inches (5.5-6.4 cm) in length.

Both the sexes incubate the eggs for about 26-28 days. The hatched young are covered with down and are able to swim, walk and run. Limpkins raise about 1-3 broods per breeding season.


Limpkin males choose the nesting site and signal the female by pulling out vegetations around the spot and giving a soft call. 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.

Male Limpkins do most of the work when it comes to building the nest but the females participate too. The roughly circular nests are made of vegetation found near the nest site. Some nests are woven and stable while others may be 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. Nests are variable in size but average about 20 inches in diameter by 3 inches deep.

Limpkins also construct a structure called brooding platforms where the young ones can be kept and sheltered together once they are old enough to move around. These platforms are similar to nests and are placed far away from the nesting sites.

Anatomy of a Limpkin

Limpkins are Heron-like in structure. However, anatomically these birds have some very distinct and interesting features. Limpkins have heavy bodies with long legs and bills. These also have a long Heron-like neck that accommodates a long and twisted trachea. The bills of Limpkins are particularly interesting. As these birds have a
primary diet of mollusks, the bill has an adapted structure to facilitate de-shelling snails and mussels. The closed bill has a gap just before the tip that makes the bill act like tweezers. The tip itself is often curved slightly to the right so it can be slipped into the right-handed curve of the snail’s shell. The feet of Limpkins are also adapted well to give them extra support to balance on floating vegetations. The feet have very long toes that help in weight distribution which keeps the birds stable while foraging for their prey.

Final Thoughts

Limpkins have a close relationship with Humans. Limpkins have an array of native names like carau in Argentina, carrao in Venezuela, and guareáo in Cuba. The species also has a range of common names that originate from its call that resembles wailing; for example, lamenting bird, or to its supposed gait, crippled bird. Even though these birds have such a haunting cry, they still do not feature in a lot of folklores. However, Amazonians do believe that if Limpkins wail, it means the river will not swell up that year. Limpkins’ wailing has also been very famously featured as the call of ‘Hipogriff’ in the film Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.


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