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Black Skimmer

Rynchops niger ORDER: CHARADRIIFORMES FAMILY: LARIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

The remarkable bill of the Black Skimmer sets it apart from all other American birds. The large red and black bill is knife-thin and the lower mandible is longer than the upper. The bird drags the lower bill through the water as it flies along, hoping to catch small fish.

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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
15.7–19.7 in
40–50 cm
Weight
7.5–15.8 oz
212–447 g
Other Names
  • Bec à ciseaux (Louisiana), Bec-en-ciseaux noir (French)
  • Rayador, Arador, Pico de Tijera (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • The Black Skimmer is the only American representative of the skimmer family. The other two, rather similar, species are the African Skimmer and the Indian Skimmer. All use the same unusual feeding method.
  • Although the Black Skimmer is active throughout the day, it is largely crepuscular (active in the dawn and dusk) and even nocturnal. Its use of touch to catch fish lets it be successful in low light or darkness.
  • At hatching, the two mandibles of a young Black Skimmer are equal in length, but by fledging at four weeks, the lower mandible is already nearly 1 cm longer than the upper.
  • Possibly the best description of the Black Skimmer's bounding, head-down foraging style came from R. C. Murphy in 1936. He said they look like “unworldly… aerial beagles hot on the scent of aerial rabbits.”

Habitat


Shore-line

Look for Black Skimmers on open sandy beaches, on gravel or shell bars with sparse vegetation, or on mats of sea wrack (tide-stranded debris) in saltmarsh. Skimmers are occasionally seen at inland lakes such as the Salton Sea of California. Much of this species' original beach habitat has been developed as houses and attractions for beachgoers. Particularly in the southeastern U.S., artificial islands made from dredge spoils are an important nesting habitat for this and other species.

Food


Fish

Feeds on small fish up to about 5 inches in length, including herring, killifish, mullet, and pipefish. Also may consume small crustaceans. Black Skimmers may travel 5 miles from their breeding colony in search of food.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
4 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
0.6–0.8 in
1.6–2 cm
Egg Width
0.5–0.6 in
1.2–1.5 cm
Incubation Period
21–25 days
Nestling Period
28–30 days
Egg Description
Pale cream, white, greenish, or pinkish spotted with dark brown to black.
Condition at Hatching
Almost helpless, covered in tan down. Chicks can soon stand and move around, but parents must feed them for 3-4 weeks after hatching
Nest Description

Mates take turns scraping, using an exaggerated posture (with the neck, head, bill, and tail raised) kicking sand behind them with alternating foot strokes. They then rotate in their scrape to create a saucer-shaped depression, similar to resting scrapes used throughout the year. The depression takes only a few minutes to create, but the process of nesting may involve several scrapes. Males do more scraping and make larger scrapes than females. The average scrape is 10 inches in diameter and 1 inch deep.

Nest Placement

Ground

Black Skimmers are colonial seabirds that nest in groups, often with other species such as Laughing Gulls and Common, Least, or Gull-billed Terns. Look for colonies on beaches, gravel or shell bars, dredge deposition islands, saltmarshes, and rooftops.

Behavior


Aerial Dive

The Black Skimmer has one of the most unusual foraging styles of any North American bird. A feeding skimmer flies low over the water with its bill open and its lower mandible slicing the surface. When the mandible touches a fish, the upper bill (maxilla) snaps down instantly to catch it. Skimmers are highly social birds, nesting in colonies and forming large flocks outside the breeding season. Large, successful colonies usually occupy the same site from year to year, while small or failed colonies usually relocate.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Black Skimmers are not federally protected, but they are on several state lists, ranging from endangered in New Jersey to special concern in North Carolina and Florida. The main threat to skimmers in modern times is development or other loss of their beach-nesting habitat, since they nest on exactly the kinds of beaches that people like to vacation on. In addition to habitat loss, skimmer nests can be destroyed by roaming dogs and by vehicles that are allowed to drive on beaches. In the nineteenth century, a major cause of Black Skimmer declines was from hunting and the collecting of eggs. Egging used to be a commercial activity, and people reported colony sizes in terms of the number of bushels of eggs they would produce. Because Black Skimmers nest very close to the water's edge and feed from the water surface, they were among the species of greatest concern during the 2010 BP oil spill. By the end of that year, 263 Black Skimmers had been collected during the oil spill response.

Credits

  • Gochfeld, M. and J. Burger. 1994. Black Skimmer (Rynchops niger).In The Birds of North America, No. 108 (A. Poole and F. Gill, Eds.). Philadelphia: The Academy of Natural Sciences; Washington, D.C.: The American Ornithologists' Union.

Range Map Help

Black Skimmer Range Map
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