Limpkin - Louisiana's newest bird

Jay V. Huner
Journal Correspondent

• Louisiana Ecrivisse, Boyce LA

Adding a new bird species to a birder's state list is a big deal. If the bird is also new to the state's bird list, that's a really big deal. Well, shortly before Christmas 2017, Josh Sylvest was boat riding in a marshy lake near Thibodaux, Louisiana and encountered a small flock of Limpkins, a species common in southern Florida and the sub-tropics and tropics, but never found in Louisiana and adjacent states.

A few intrepid birders tried to relocate the birds but cold, wet, windy weather made their efforts fruitless. Then, at the end of January 2018, Houma area birder Michael Autin was visiting Lake Houma on the west side of Houma, Louisiana and found at least two Limpkins in a marshy area adjacent to a major roadway. At least a hundred birders have seen the species in the week following Autin's find. Should the birds remain, many more birders will be visiting the site.

So, what does a Limpkin look like? Well, it's a large, long-legged, long-necked wading bird that somewhat resembles a brown-colored, white spotted and streaked ibis. The long bill is mostly straight unlike an ibis's curved bill.

The call will clearly raise the hackles on anyone's ear. It's best described as unmistakable cry resembling what some describe as sounding like a "banshee".

Limpkins have a very specialized diet. They eat mollusks especially very large snails belonging to a group called apple snails. There are several species throughout the New World. One is native to the Florida peninsula. Apple snails have tightly coiled shells with an oval operculum, or door, that protects their bodies from most predators and drying out when water disappears during dry seasons. They do somewhat resemble apples and can grow as large as a medium-sized apple!

A South American apple snail has been a popular aquarium species for decades. Release of this species from aquaria was the apparent source of introduction into southern Florida and southern Louisiana. Apple snails are now found along Bayou Lafourche, the New Orleans area and, lately near Baton Rouge. They consume huge amounts of soft, rooted aquatic vegetation upsetting the ecological balance where they have invaded.

The Limpkin has a bill uniquely adapted to foraging on apple snails. The closed bill has a gap just before the tip that makes the bill act like tweezers. The tip is often curved slightly to the right so it can be slipped into the right-hand chamber of the snail around the protective operculum.

The birders who have gone to see the Limpkins at Lake Houma have watched them foraging on the apple snails there. The Limpkins pick up the snails by the edge of the shells' apertures, carry them to a raised area, and then pick out the snails' body. The snails don't have a chance. It takes less than a minute to get a meal!

Limpkins also eat freshwater clams and mussels and have been observed eating them at Lake Houma. But, they prefer apple snails.

So, are Limpkins going to be a "flash in the pan" in Louisiana or will they colonize southern Louisiana to feast on a cornucopia of apple snails? Time will tell.