I ate escargot for the first time a few months ago. That I didn’t enjoy it probably had to do with the fact that Aderman, my videographer, ruined the experience by telling me that snails “are like snot in a shell”. I spared myself one of his too-detailed explanations by NOT asking how he came to this revelation. So whilst I don’t have a penchant for escargot, there are some birds who, like French people, do. In particular, I’m referring to Snail Kites and Limpkins, true snail specialists that have a very limited distribution in the United States.
I live in Florida so when I was approached by Palm Beach County to film a TV episode featuring the birds of this part of the state, I chomped at the bit. This would be a unique opportunity to feature the birds of my backyard. I literally have Snail Kites living 20 minutes away and Limpkins even closer.
Limpkins and Snail Kites feed almost exclusively on Florida Apple Snails. Apple Snails are unique amongst the snails in that they have both a lung and gills, allowing them to lead an amphibious lifestyle. This is an unusual adaptation that enables them to hide underwater from aerial predators like Snail Kites but also allows them to lay their eggs out of the water, away from predatory fish and other aquatic animals. Florida Apple Snails get quite large and, once the meat is removed from the shell, provide a sizeable meal for both Limpkins and Snail Kites. But their availability is also heavily dictated by water levels. Dry downs are events that occur naturally in Florida wetlands as a result of the water table dropping below ground level. But the frequency of dry downs has increased due to intensive water control projects. This increase in frequency negatively affects Florida Apple Snails which in turn negatively affects Limpkins and Snail Kites.
John Prince Park in Palm Beach County Florida is a place where Limpkins run around like chickens. So I picked up Aderman one morning and we headed over to film them. As per usual there were many different Limpkins to choose from and we set about filming a bird that was actively hunting for its hungry youngsters. Anyone who watches the behavior of Limpkins quickly realizes that these are bizarre birds. The common name comes from their peculiar “limping” gait but it is their taxonomy, more than their behavior, that is truly bizarre. Nobody is really certain exactly where this bird fits into the mix. They superficially resemble ibis and behave in some ways like rails. But skeletally they share more affinity with cranes. For this reason they are placed in their own monotypic family Aramidae within the order Gruiformes that includes both rails and cranes. Various authors have suggested they are related to spoonbills, ibis and even finfoots. For now they remain where they are – amongst the Gruiformes. Until someone decides to place them within their own monotypic order, Bansheeiformes, on account of their bloodcurdling calls.
Having Snail Kites so close to home is pretty neat. In order to film them we headed off to Arthur Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Preserve, situated just along the edge of the Everglades. Although Snail Kites have a widespread distribution in Central and South America, there are only around 400 pairs of Snail kites in the United States, all of them in Florida. And this number fluctuates widely according to the availability of the snails.
Whilst food specialization means you become the best in the game (in this case catching and eating snails), it does have its disadvantages. What happens when that food source becomes scarce? Besides starving, you have the choice to either migrate to greener pastures or to steal from the more fortunate. And Snail Kites are not above resorting to kleptoparasitism during times of drought. Snail Kites have a much harder time getting to submerged or buried Apple Snails and they sometimes let Limpkins do the dirty work for them, swooping in last-minute and stealing the rewards.
Watching a Snail Kite shuck a snail with that highly specialized bill is an incredible experience. This is a bird that has taken eating with utensils to a new level…
A great resource for visiting the excellent birding sites around Palm Beach County and the whole of Florida is the Great Florida Birding Trail. So pick up a GFBT map and come down and meet these unique birds for yourselves.