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What is a Black Skimmer?

By Debra Durkee
Updated May 21, 2024
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The black skimmer is a medium to large water bird with an appearance similar to that of a seagull. It can be found year-round in much of South America and some parts of the Gulf of Mexico, and has breeding grounds off the East Coast of the United States. It can easily be identified by its unique, knife-like beak, characterized by a lower mandible that is longer than the top. The black skimmer is the only bird in the United States that has such a beak.

Both genders reach a mature length of between 15.7 and 19.7 inches (about 40 to 50 cm), and weigh between 7.5 and 15.8 oz (about 212 to 447 g). In shape, the black skimmer resembles a seagull, with a long beak that is red at the base and black at the tip. The bird's back, wings, and the top of the head are black, while the face, front, and belly are white. Wings are long and slender, while the feet and legs are bright, reddish-orange.

Ground nesters, black skimmers typically find their preferred habitat on sandy beaches or sand dunes and bars, marsh pools, estuaries, or near shallow bays. Plumage of breeding birds is slightly brighter than that of non-breeding birds. Juveniles have markings that are similar to adults, but the darker parts on their backs and heads are a paler, dull brown color. Both parts of their beaks are the same length when the birds first hatch; they begin to acquire the longer lower mandible by the time they are about four weeks old.

Black skimmers have extremely sensitive beaks, which they use to their advantage when hunting for the small fish that make up the majority of their diet. They fly just above the surface of the water, beak open, the tip of the long, lower mandible skimming the water. When they find a fish, they grab it out of the water. The black skimmer is the only member of the skimmer family found in the United States, but the closely related African skimmer and Indian skimmer share the same unique foraging method.

After temporarily suffering through a decline in number in the 1970s, the population of black skimmers has since remained stable. They cover a range of about 14 million square miles between their native environments in Central, South, and North America and the Caribbean. Black skimmers live in colonies, and these groups can be called a conspiracy, an embezzlement, or a scoop.

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