One of the more interesting patients to come to the Wildlife Center in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike was a Black Skimmer (Rynchops niger). So many things make this species unique it’s hard to know where to start. With an oversized black tipped red bill, red legs and short white tail, the Black Skimmer is always an eye catcher.
Like the pelican, the Black Skimmer has evolved a beak that is highly specialized. The only species that has a longer lower mandible than the top, the Black Skimmer slices the water’s surface with its lower mandible to “skim” small fish as it flies. As soon as a fish is detected, the upper mandible snaps closed. Using tactile senses instead of eyesight allows the Black Skimmer to feed even at night.
Neither diurnal or nocturnal, the Black Skimmer is considered crepuscular, which means that it is the most active at twilight. Considered a medium sized bird, the wingspan of the skimmer is an astounding 44 inches! Highly maneuverable, it can execute intricate acrobatics; flocks often wheel in unison.
The voice is an unusual dog-like bark, earning it the nickname “flying beagle”. The eyes are vertically slit, which is very uncommon except in cats, nocturnal reptiles, sharks and rays. A very useful adaptation for animals that must see well in very bright light as well as at night, evolutionary theorists don’t understand why it isn’t more common. The obvious advantage of the slit pupil is it’s ability to close much more tightly than a round pupil to protect it from extremely bright light, but it also enhances depth perception in the peripheral vision.
This Black Skimmer presented with a wing injury. Unfortunately, a complete medical work-up revealed that his wing was too badly mangled to heal well enough to perform the exacting maneuvers necessary to “skim”. Usually animals that cannot be released to the wild must be euthanized, but he is so unusual that WR&E is working to place him in an outdoor exhibit at a zoo.