The Odd Beak

The Indian Skimmer, a unique bird with an equally unique hunting strategy, is briskly losing its hold due to rampant development and unscientific management of its habitat. Deemed Vulnerable by the IUCN, its population is declining rapidly.

The skimmer is a true oddity among birds. With its lower beak considerably longer than the upper one, the skimmer uses this unique adaptation to hunt for fish by flying low over the water. Somewhat tern-like in appearance, the skimmer family Rynchopidae is at times even considered as a sister group of terns in the gulls’ family Laridae. The Indian Skimmer (Rynchops albicollis) is one of the three species present in this assemblage of birds and the only one present in Asia. It is distributed patchily in South Asia (India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh) and some parts of Southeast Asia.


Image credit: Manish Trivedi


Fisher par excellence

The Indian Skimmer is a distinctive bird with black and white coloration and a large and bright orange beak, quite unmistakable over its distribution range. Primarily seen on large, sandy, lowland rivers, the species do migrate locally during the non-breeding season to estuaries, lakes, and coasts.


Image credit: Manish Trivedi


These birds breed in colonies on exposed sandbars and islands. Although strange-looking, the unique beak of the skimmer is an amazing adaptation that helps the birds catch fish while flying above the water. The longer, lower mandible is skimmed on the water surface, thus giving the bird its English name. This lower beak is extremely sensitive and snaps shut when it touches something, a fish in all likelihood.


Intrusion of space

The population of the Indian Skimmer is on a rapid decline due to increased human disturbance in their habitat and it has thus been classified as Vulnerable by IUCN. Fishing, transportation, pollution, extraction of water for irrigation, and other similar detrimental activities have degraded the quality of habitat and affected both breeding and foraging of the Indian Skimmer.

The stronghold population of the skimmer in the National Chambal Wildlife Sanctuary has been badly affected by the damming of the Chambal River. The damming has resulted in dropping of the water level, which allows easy access to predators and livestock to the islands these birds breed on; release from dams can destroy breeding colonies as well. Encroachment of exotic aquatic vegetation also hampers the skimmer’s unique foraging behavior.


Image credit: Manish Trivedi


The National Chambal Wildlife Sanctuary has been declared as a Ramsar site and active management of the area has decreased some of the threats to the population here. Along with strict bans on all detrimental activities, conducting regular population surveys in India and Pakistan and mapping out the exact distribution range in Southeast Asia are some of the suggested steps for the conservation of the species. Generating local awareness and being assured of their help will be beneficial in the long-term conservation of this species.

Kingdom : Animalia

Phylum : Chordata

Class : Aves

Order : Charadriiformes

Family : Rynchopidae

Genus : Rynchops

Species : R. albicollis


This article was first published in the 2015 April edition of Saevus Magazine.

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