Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Limpkin - the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
ARAMUS VOCIFERUS VOCIFERUS (Latham)
"The voice of one crying in the wilderness" is the first impression one gets of this curious bird in the great inland swamps of Florida. While exploring the intricate channels, half choked with aquatic vegetation, that wound their way among the willow islands in the extensive marshes of the upper St. Johns, we frequently heard and occasionally caught a glimpse of this big, brown, rail-like bird; it peered and nodded at us from the shore of some little island, or went flying off with deliberate wing beats over the tops of the bushes; once one perched on the top of a small willow and looked at us.
The limpkin, or crying bird, as it has been called most appropriately, was once very abundant in Florida, but for the past 40 years or more it has been steadily decreasing in numbers. It is so tame and unsuspicious, almost foolishly so, and it flies so slowly, that it has been an easy mark for the thoughtless gunner who shoots at every large bird he sees, especially if it is good to eat. The flesh of the limpkin has been much esteemed as food and in many places it. has been hunted as a game bird. It was decidedly scarce when I was in Florida, in 1902, and had practically disappeared from all regions within easy reach of civilization.
T. Gilbert Pearson, who has recently been investigating the status of the limpkin in Florida, writes to me:
In May, 192l,Ileft Leesburg, Florida, inamotor boat, crossed Lake Griffin and descended the Okiawaha River to its confluence with the St. Johns River. During this trip of three days, in which a constant lookout was kept for limpkins, only 11 individuals were seen and another was heard calling one morning near our camp. Three of the birds were so tame that it would have been very easy to have shot them from the boat with a .22 rifle. In one case we passed within 40 feet of a limpkin sitting on a dead limb. The noise of the motor boat did not even cause it to leave its perch. Natives along the river told me the bird was excellent for food and some years ago it was not an uncommon custom to shoot 20 or 30 before breakfast. On March 30, 1923, I secured a small boat at the town of Kissimmee and traveled southward through a series of three lakes until we entered Kissimmee River. This we followed to its mouth in the waters of Lake Okechobee River. Five days were spent. on the trip. Limpkins were in evidence and very noisy. Although weather conditions as well as the surroundings and methods of our travel were very favorable for seeing the birds along the iiver and canals or streams connecting the lakes, only 41 were discovered. The bird is so easily killed, so highly esteemed as food, and is found in a State where so little attention is paid to the enforcement of the bird and game laws, the prospects of its long survival are not at all encouraging.
Nesting: Audubon (1840) says of the nesting habits of the limpkil:
The nest of this bird is placed among the larger tufts of the tallest grasses that grow at short distances from the bayous, many of which are influenced by the low tides of the Gulf. It is so well fastened to the stems of the plants, in the same manner as that of Rallus crepitans, as to be generally secure from inundation; and is composed of rank weeds matted together, and forming a large mass, with a depression in the center. The eggs, which rarely exceed five or six, are large for the size of the bird. The young are hatched early in May, and follow their parents soon after birth.
Thomas H. Jackson (1887) gives a somewhat. different impression; he writes:
For a nesting place this bird chooses a secluded spot where intruders are not likely to venture, on the benk of a river or a slough, often overhanging the waters and surrounded by a bottom of mud so deep that only a boat can give access to it. Several pairs often nest close together in the manner of herons, though isolated nests are frequently observed. The nest is composed of pieces of dead vines, dry leaves, and old vegetation of various kinds loosely constructed, and is generally bedded on a mass of vines and from 5 to 8 feet from the ground.
C. J. Pennock has sent m~ some extensive notes on his experience with the limpkin, from which I quote as follows:
During the latter part of March, 1924, the writer had an opportunity, for the first time, to form an interesting acquaintance, lasting but live or six days however, with individuals of this species in a vast marsh in southeastern Florida. We found probably eight or ten pairs of the birds scattered over different sections of what may be roughly estimated as 25 square miles of the marsh. Four days of this time, March 22, 24, 25, and 26, were spent traversing this area in a small boat propelled by poling, as oars were impossible in almost all places on account of the matted growths of water hyacinths, water lilies, yellow spatter docks, and various other forms of aquatic plants usually grouped in name as "bonnets" by natives of the district. So far as observed the limpkins confined their activities to the broad open reaches of marsh where we found numerous tracts of saw grass and clumps of myrtle. The nests, of which we found six or seven, were invariably in the tall saw grass. A bulky platform was lashed securely to the upright growing stems by interlacing the blades. On this were laid broken leaves and stems to make a secure receptacle which was but slightly depressed like a shallow plate. The whole quite in the form of the more common type of nest of the clapper rail, as I have noted it along the Gulf coast of Florida. All of the nests seen were in coarser, taller groups of saw grass growing in water 18 inches to 2 feet or more in depth and were placed only a step or two back from the opeu water. But three of the nests found contained eggs; one held five the others had four each, all others were about completed. Nesting did not appear to be communal. No two nests were nearer than a half mile of one another, but the scarcity of the birds might account for such happening. With birds as numerous as different persons related and saw grass in no greater abundance than was seen, the probabilities are that in former years these birds did nest in colonies or at least several pairs in close proximity. No bird was seen on the nest but three were flushed at different places as we approached the clumps of saw grass where we presently located nests. In one instance we had pushed our boat through a narTow deep channel by the side of great bunches of saw grass 10 to 12 feet In height and a limpkin flew with raucous calls from 15 to 20 yards back in the pond. Passing that way later we discovered the nest directly alongside of the channel and so near we could reach into it from the boat. This nest was nearer the water than any other we saw and was scarcely a platform-built structure but placed low down among the stems of the saw grass about a foot from the surface of the water.
Frederic H. Kennard has sent me the following notes on a nest he found, near the north shore of Lake Okeechobee, on ApriL 4, 1914, in an unusual location:
While coming out of a creek caUed Limpkin Creek, Tom spied what looked like a nest, about 15 feet up, among some vines in a myrtle tree beside the stream. I thought it was no nest until I could see the tail of a bird protruding from the edge of the possible nest. We returned to the place and flushed a limpkin crying from the neat. I climbn.d to the nest and found it a frail structure of fresh twigs, containing one fresh egg. The female was flying about, crying and perching on neighboring bushes and trees, and evidently in great distress of mind. The nest was about 15 feet or more from the ground, placed in a thick clump of what looked like matrimony vine (I don't know that matrimony vine grows in Florida) in the crotch of a black gum sapling that was growing right up through the myrtle tree, all of which grew at the very top of a high bank bordering the creek. The vines were so thick and the nest so thin that it made no showing at all, and only the bird's tail revealed it.
Oscar E. Baynard, who has probably had more experience with the nesting habits of the limpkin than any other living collector, made two unsuccessful attempts to show me an occupied nest of this species in Florida, in the spring of 1925. On March 30 we explored some 8 miles of the Wekiva River in Orange County. It is a beautiful river of clear spring water, winding its picturesque course through a splendid swampy forest of large cypress, maples, water oaks, hickories, ashes, magnolias, and a few cabbage palmettos and pines; the banks are lined with dense shrubbery and are overgrown with tangles of morning glories, cat briars and poison ivy; and the stream is partially choked with water hyacinths, "bonnets," and "lettuce." He pointed out several ideal nesting sites for limpkins, but we saw only one bird and found no nests.
On April 19 we explored the Weekiwachee River, in Ilernando County, a similar river, but not so heavily forested and bordered in places with open saw-grass marshes. Here we saw only three birds and found two or three old nests. One of these was placed on an old stump and the others were on low bushes, in dense tangles of morning glory vines; large quantities of Spanish moss had been used in building the nests, which were close to the bank of the stream or on a little islet in it.
Eggs: The limpkin lays from four to eight eggs; the larger numbers are comparatively rare. The shape is ovate, somewhat rounded, and the shell is smooth with a slight gloss. The ground color varies from "deep olive buff" or "cream buff" to "cartridge buff." Some eggs are splashed, chiefly near the larger end, with longitudinal blotches of drabs and dull browns, such as "vinaceous drab," "drab-grays," "buffy brown," and "wood brown." Others are more clearly spotted with the same colors; and some are boldly spotted or blotched at the large end with darker browns, "burnt umber,"" warm sepia," or "bone brown." The measurements of 40 eggs average 59.4 by 43.8 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 64 by 42.8, 62.5 by 47, 57 by 42, 57.5 by 40.5 millimeters.
Plumages: The downy young limpkin is completely covered with long, thick, soft down; the color of the upper parts varies from "ciiinamon brown" to "snuff brown"; it is paler on the sides of the head and belly and almost white on the chin. The body plumage is acquired first and the wings last; the bird is fully grown before the wings are half grown. The juvenal plumage is much like that of the adult, in general appearance, except that it is softer and looser in texture and the white markings on the back are smaller and more restricted. A complete molt during the first spring, when the young bird is about a year old, produces the adult plumage.
Adults have a complete prenuptial molt, from February to April, and a complete post-nuptial molt from August to November, with no great seasonal difference in plumage.
Food: The limpkin seems to feed mainly on animal food, which it finds in the swamps where it lives, such as various mollusks, crustaceans, frogs, lizards, worms, and aquatic insects. Audubon (1840) says:
The Everglades abound with a species of large greenish snail, on which these birds principally feed; and, from the great number of empty shells which are found at the foot of the nest and around it, it is probable that the sitting bird is supplied with food by her mate.
Dr. Henry Byrant (1861) writes:
On the St. Johns it feeds principally on a species of Naiica, which is extremely abundant, and also on the small Unios. The large green snail, so common in the Everglades, is not very often met with on the St. Johns. Its manner of feeding is to hold the shell in one of its feet, and then with a few blows of its powerful bill to detach the animal, which it immediately swallows. All the specimens I killed had the stomach filled with more or less digested remains of various mollusks: principally Unios.
It is easy to detect the presence of limpkins by looking for the deposits of the empty shells of these snails. The birds have favorite feeding places where they bring the snails; one can often find a number of empty shells around some old log or snag or on an open place on a bank.
Behavior: Under the old name, courlan, which seems much more appropriate tnan the local nickname, limpkin, Audubon (1840) gives us a good account of the behavior of this species, as follows:
The flight of the scolopaceous courlan is heavy and of short duration; the concavity Mid shortness of its wings, together with the nature of the places which it inhabits, probably rendering it slow to remove from one spot to another, on wing, it being in a manner confined among tall plants, the roots of which are frequently under water. When it rises spontaneously it passes through the air, at a short distance above the weeds, with regular beats of the wings, its neck extended to its full length, and its long legs dangling beneath, until it suddenly drops to the ground. Few birds then excel it in speed, as it proceeds, if pursued, by long strides, quickly repeated, first in a direct course, along paths formed by itself when passing and repassing from one place to another, and afterwards diverging so as to ensure its safety even when chased by the best dogs, or other not less eager enemies inhabiting the half-submerged wilderness which it has chosen for its residence. When accidently surprised, it rises obliquely out of its recess, and the neck greatly bent downward, and although its legs dangle for awhile, they are afterwards extended behind in the manner of those of the heron tribe. At such times these birds are easily shot; but if they are only wounded, it would be in vain to pursue them. Although of considerable size and weight, they are enabled, by the great length and expansion of their toes, to walk on the broad leaves of the larger species of Nymphaea found in that country. They swim with the same buoyancy as the coots, gallinules, and rails.
William Brewster (1881) writes attractively about it, as follows:
But if our presence was a matter of indifference to the birds just mentioned we certainly were not ignored by the vigilant courlans, for any sudden noise, like the splash of a paddle in the water or the rapping of its handle against the boat, was sure to be instantly followed by a piercing "kur-r-ee-ow, kurr-r-ee-ow, ksrr-r-ee-ow, kr-ow, kr-ow," from the nearest thicket; or perhaps several would cry out at once as rails will do on similar occasions. For the most part the )irds kept closely hidden but at length we discovered one feeding on the shore. His motions were precisely similar to those of a rail, as he skirted the oozy brink, lifting and putting down his feet with careful deliberation. Occasionally he detected and seized a snail, which was quickly swallowed, the motion being invariably accompanied by a comical side shake of the bill, apparently expressive of satisfaction, though it was.perhaps designed to remove any particlesof mud that may have adhered to his unique food. Finally he spied us and walked up the inclined trunk of a fallen tree to its shattered end where he stood for a moment tilting his body and jerking up his tail. Then he uttered a hoarse rattling cry like the gasp of a person being strangled, at the same time shaking his head so violently that his neck seemed in imminent danger of dislocation. Just as we were nearly within gun range he took wing, with a shriek that might have been heard for half a mile. His flight was nearly like a heron's, the wings being moved slowly and occasionally held motionless during intervals of sailing. Shortly afterwards another, his mate probably, was detected under a palmetto leaf near at hand. In the shadow her form was dimly outlined and she stood perfectly motionless, evidently relying upon concealment for protection, but her quick eye took in every suspicious movement and at length, conscious that she was seen, she ran rapidly for a few paces and launched into the air, following the course taken by the first. He is perfectly at home in the tops of the tallest trees where he walks among the twigs with all the ease of a heron or stands motionless on some horizontal branch with one leg drawn up and the curved bill resting on his breast. These elevated perches are generally resorted to at daybreak. The people told us that when the country was first settled the "Limpkins," as they are called from their peculiar halting gait, were so tame that they could frequently be caught on their nests, but incessant persecution has had the usual result and they are now at all times among the most wary of birds.
Dr. Bryant (1861) says of its voice:
The common note of this bird is the most disagreeable of any of our native birds, and resembles more that of the peacock than that of any other bird I am acquainted with; it is if anything more powerful, and equally harsh and disagreeable. It is very fond of uttering it. Besides this, which I presume is the call note, it makes a number of other sounds, all of the most inharmonious description, but of which I can convey no correct idea.
Mr. Pennock says in his notes:
Our introduction to the bird was a self-announcement of his presence which came in no uncertain notes from afar across the open stretch. If this bird was located where the guide pointed out, he was at least three-quarters of a mile distant and at other times, by the same authority, they were heard at even greater distances. At any rate their notes are far-reaching, are strident, and have great volume: a prolonged wail "curr-r-u-ck' perhaps might give an idea of the call as we heard it most frequently, but the guide insisted I have not heard the "sure enuf" cry, nor did I until some days later; then a wounded bird which fell in the water near the boat sent forth repeated and most terriffic clarionlike screams, more prolonged and earpiercing than we had previously heard and which I was informed were the "sure enuf thing.'' Several of the birds seen were discovered by their loud calls and were found to be perched aloft in or near the tops of the myrtle clumps, usually so high up as to be seen for a long distance: not infrequently for a half mile: and several times when a bird was alarmed and flew up from the grass pond it made for such a refuge and gave close attention to our approach, as we came across open water in the boat. At times we could pole within 50 yards of one of these perching birds and again they flew while we were yet 150 yards distant. Always such birds sent forth their shrill, rolling calls from on high whether they were approached or not, perhaps an indication of nervous apprehension.
Breeding range: The interior of the peninsula of Florida and southeastern Georgia (Okefinokee Swamp). The breeding birds of the West Indi'~s and Central America are now considered subspecifically distinct.
Winter range: The same as the breeding range. This is a nonmigratory species.
Casual records: Has wandered in winter to the Florida Keys and the Dry Tortugas; and to South Carolina (Aiken County, October 18, 1890). The record for Brownsville, Texas, May 29, 1889, refers to the Central American form.
Egg dates: Florida: 80 records, January 3 to August 2; 40 records, March 19 to April 20.
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