Indian skimmer (Rynchops albicollis)

GenusRynchops (1)
SizeLength: 40 – 43 cm (2)

The Indian skimmer is classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (1).

Skimmers (Rhynchops) are known for their unique bill, which has a much longer lower mandible and is perfectly adapted to their specialised feeding technique of skimming the water's surface for prey (3). The bill is a distinctive deep orange with a yellow tip, which, together with the bright red legs, stands out as a rich splash of colour against the black and white plumage of the body (2). Black upperparts, which are a duller brown in non-breeding plumage, contrast with a white under-body, forehead, neck-collar, and trailing edge of the wing (2) (4). The sexes are alike, but females are slightly smaller (2). Juveniles have a dusky orange bill with a blackish tip, dull orange legs, paler, brownish-grey upperparts and white-buff fringes to the mantle and wing-coverts (2) (4).

Found in the Indian subcontinent, with much smaller numbers locally in Southeast Asia (3). Formerly widely distributed across the Indian subcontinent and common in the 19th century in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, the Indian skimmer currently occupies Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Myanmar, and occasionally visits Nepal. An individual sighted at Khok Kham in January 2002 was the first record of this species in Thailand in more than 30 years (2).

Primarily resident on large, sandy, lowland rivers, around lakes and adjacent marshes, with breeding occurring on exposed sand-bars and islands. In the non-breeding season, estuaries and coasts are also occupied (2).

Skimmers are social birds, which nest in colonies, roost communally on sand banks, and feed either singly or in flocks (3) (4). The Indian skimmer hunts up and down large rivers and lakes both during the day and during moonlit nights (3) (4). Food is caught almost exclusively by skimming the water in flight with the longer, projecting lower mandible submerged to snap shut on contact with fish, which are then swallowed either in flight or after landing (3).

Breeding occurs between February and May, producing clutches of three to four eggs (4).

Populations of the Indian skimmer appear to be declining at an alarming rate; the total population was estimated at fewer than 10,000 in 1994, but is thought to be fewer than 5,000 presently. These drastic declines are largely a result of widespread disturbance, exploitation and degradation of lowland rivers and lakes through fishing, transportation, domestic use, and pollution from agricultural and industrial chemicals. Habitat loss reduces both reproductive and foraging success. The construction of irrigation barrages and dams on major rivers have degraded or destroyed certain areas of sand-bar habitat, as well as facilitating the conversion of such areas to agricultural land (2). Reduction in water levels in some Indian rivers has allowed dogs and other predators to reach nesting colonies and destroy eggs and chicks (6). The encroachment of vegetation, especially of water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes), is also an increasing problem at lakes and reservoirs (2). In addition, collection of eggs may have contributed to the reduction of Indian skimmer numbers in some parts of its range (5).

This bird can be found in the National Chambal Sanctuary in India, and active management in various regions has reduced key threats at important wetland habitat sites. However, in order for further effective and appropriate conservation initiatives to be implemented, detailed research needs to be conducted into the seasonal movements of populations, which are little understood. Stricter control of pesticide use also needs to be promoted or regulated near key wetland habitats. Finally, campaigns for increased representation of large tracts of water within protected areas would undoubtedly benefit the survival and abundance of a vast array of Asia’s aquatic biodiversity, including the rare and beautiful Indian skimmer (2).

For further information on the Indian skimmer see:

BirdLife International:

Creagrus: SKIMMERS Rynchopidae:

Authenticated (04/01/06) by K.S. Gopi Sundar, International Crane Foundation

  1. IUCN Red List (November, 2005)
  2. BirdLife International (November, 2005)
  3. Creagrus: SKIMMERS Rynchopidae (November, 2005)
  4. Holiday - Indian Skimmer (November, 2005)
  5. Sundar, G. (2006) Pers. comm.
  6. NCL Center for Biodiversity Informatics (November, 2005)