email a friend
printable version
African Skimmer Rynchops flavirostris
BirdLife is updating this factsheet for the 2016 Red List
Please email us with any relevant information

This species is listed as Near Threatened owing to its moderately small population. If the population was found to be small and experiencing an ongoing decline, the species may qualify for a higher threat category.

Taxonomic source(s)
AERC TAC. 2003. AERC TAC Checklist of bird taxa occurring in Western Palearctic region, 15th Draft. Available at: # _the_WP15.xls#.
Cramp, S.; Perrins, C. M. 1977-1994. Handbook of the birds of Europe, the Middle East and Africa. The birds of the western Palearctic. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
del Hoyo, J.; Collar, N. J.; Christie, D. A.; Elliott, A.; Fishpool, L. D. C. 2014. HBW and BirdLife International Illustrated Checklist of the Birds of the World. Barcelona, Spain and Cambridge UK: Lynx Edicions and BirdLife International.

36-42cm. Unmistakeable in range, large tern-like bird with lower mandible longer than upper. Strikingly black above and white below.  Similar spp. The combination of a pale distal part of bill and continuous black hindneck in breeding plumage separates the species from R. niger and R. albicollis respectively.

Distribution and population
Rynchops flavirostris is widespread in sub-Saharan Africa, but is largely confined when breeding to large, dry sandbars in broad rivers and some lakes, below 1,800 m (Coppinger et al. 1988). It is less restricted in the non-breeding season, dispersing to rivers, lakes and coasts in countries as widespread as Egypt, Gambia and Botswana. Large concentrations (including breeding birds) occur along the Zambezi River (F. Dowsett-Lemaire and R. J. Dowsett in litt. 2000), e.g. 1,428 individuals (Coppinger et al. 1988), and non-breeding flocks of at least 1,000 individuals have been recorded in Tanzania and Kenya. The population is estimated to number 15,000-25,000 birds (with 7,000-13,000 in West and Central Africa and 8,000-12,000 in East Africa and South Africa) (T. Dodman 2002 in litt. to Wetlands International 2002), and the species is thought to be declining (Zusi 1996).

Population justification
There are 7,000-13,000 in West and Central Africa and 8,000-12,000 in East Africa and South Africa (T. Dodman in litt. 2002), giving a total of 15,000-25,000 individuals, roughly equivalent to 10,000-17,000 mature individuals.

Trend justification
The population is suspected to be in decline owing to wetland habitat degradation, over-exploitation and human disturbance.

Behaviour The species migrates up and down larger rivers, and to and from inland lakes (del Hoyo et al. 1996), dispersing widely after the breeding season (Tyler 2004). Migration is driven by the need for calm weather (Urban et al. 1986). Breeding takes place during the dry season when rivers are at their lowest and sandbars most exposed (del Hoyo et al. 1996). This generally occurs from March to June in West and East Africa, and mainly from July to November south of the equator (del Hoyo et al. 1996). In Nigeria the species disperses up to 600km from its breeding sites in June - August (Urban et al. 1986), moving mainly downstream (Urban et al. 1986). It returns in November or December, coinciding with the onset of strong winds in its non-breeding areas (Urban et al. 1986). Breeding occurs in small colonies of up to 50 pairs (Tyler 2004). During the non-breeding season larger flocks are formed, sometimes of up to 1500 birds (Tyler 2004). Habitat This species requires expanses of calm water for feeding (Urban et al. 1986). Breeding It breeds along broad rivers on large, dry sandbars that are largely free from vegetation (Urban et al. 1986). It sometimes breeds on sandy lake shores, and very occasionally on sandy sea shores (Urban et al. 1986). Non-breeding During the non-breeding season it is more commonly found at lakes (Urban et al. 1986) and also frequents coastal lagoons, salt-pans, open marshes and estuaries (Urban et al. 1986, del Hoyo et al. 1996). It is less common along coasts (del Hoyo et al. 1996). Vagrant birds may use swamps and artificial habitats such as sewage ponds and dams (Urban et al. 1986). Diet It feeds on fish, such as cichlids (del Hoyo et al. 1996), foraging exclusively in the fashion characteristic of the family Rynchopidae, namely by skimming the water in flight with its mouth open and lower mandible submerged (del Hoyo et al. 1996). Breeding site Eggs are laid in an unlined scrape in the sand (Urban et al. 1986, del Hoyo et al. 1996). Scrapes occurs within 2-14m of one another (Urban et al. 1986) and are initially created within 30m of the water (Urban et al. 1986), though falling water levels may increase this distance (Urban et al. 1986). The clutch-size is two or three, rarely four, and the incubation period is c.21 days followed by a fledging period of about four weeks (del Hoyo et al. 1996).

Dam-building has flooded some upstream areas and reduced downstream flows, destroying suitable habitat (Urban et al. 1986, Coppinger et al. 1988, Ginn et al. 1989). Farming practices have also caused siltation of many rivers, raising river levels and swamping breeding islands (Urban et al. 1986, Ginn et al. 1989). Egg-collecting, trapping of adults and general disturbance by humans, cattle and recently increased boat traffic can be serious problems in some areas (Britton 1980, Coppinger et al. 1988, Tyler and Stone 2000). Disruption by recreational fishermen may impact breeding colonies in the Okavango Panhandle, and local fishermen have been reported using chicks as bait (Vial 1995; cited in Hancock 2008). Food supplies may have been reduced by pollution, overfishing and introduced predatory fish, but it is unclear whether this has affected its prey of small fry (fish) (Tyler and Stone 2000). Large-scale spraying of DDT and general water pollution may result in toxic bioaccumulation of pollutants in these piscivores (Coppinger et al. 1988).

Conservation Actions Underway
No actions targeted at this species are known. Conservation Actions Proposed
Clarify population status and trends by monitoring breeding populations annually and assessing breeding success. Conduct public awareness campaign regarding its conservation needs, both through ecotourism to areas such as the Okavango delta, and through local grassroots environmental education (Tyler and Stone 2000).

Britton, P. L. 1980. Birds of East Africa. East Africa Natural History Society, Nairobi.

Coppinger, M. P.; Williams, G. D.; Maclean, G. L. 1988. Distribution and breeding biology of the African Skimmer on the upper and middle Zambezi river. Ostrich 59: 85-96.

del Hoyo, J.; Elliott, A.; Sargatal, J. 1996. Handbook of the Birds of the World, vol. 3: Hoatzin to Auks. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.

Ginn, P. J.; McIlleron, W. G.; Milstein, P. le S. 1989. The complete book of southern African birds. Struik Winchester, Cape Town.

Hancock, P. 2008. African Skimmer. In: Hancock, P. (ed.), The status of globally and nationally threatened birds in Botswana, 2008., pp. 21-22. BirdLife Botswana.

Tyler SJ. 2004. The breeding and population status of the African Skimmer Rynchops flavirostris in Botswana . Ostrich 75(4): 329-332.

Tyler, S. J.; Stone, J. R. 2000. African Skimmers Rynchops flavirostris in Botswana. Babbler 37: 33-38.

Urban, E. K.; Fry, C. H.; Keith, S. 1986. The birds of Africa vol. II. Academic Press, London.

Wetlands International. 2002. Waterbird population estimates. Wetlands International, Wageningen, Netherlands.

Zusi, R. L. 1996. Rynchopidae (Skimmers). In: del Hoyo, J.; Elliott, A.; Sargatal, J. (ed.), Handbook of the birds of the world, pp. 668-677. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.

Further web sources of information
Explore HBW Alive for further information on this species

Search for photos and videos, and hear sounds of this species from the Internet Bird Collection

Text account compilers
Butchart, S., Ekstrom, J., Evans, M., Malpas, L., Martin, R, O'Brien, A., Pilgrim, J., Taylor, J.

Baker, L., Baker, N., Claffey, P., Dodman, T., Dowsett, R., Dowsett-Lemaire, F., Hall, P., Rommens, W., Tyler, S.

IUCN Red List evaluators
Butchart, S., Symes, A.

Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2016) Species factsheet: Rynchops flavirostris. Downloaded from on 23/10/2016. Recommended citation for factsheets for more than one species: BirdLife International (2016) IUCN Red List for birds. Downloaded from on 23/10/2016.

This information is based upon, and updates, the information published in BirdLife International (2000) Threatened birds of the world. Barcelona and Cambridge, UK: Lynx Edicions and BirdLife International, BirdLife International (2004) Threatened birds of the world 2004 CD-ROM and BirdLife International (2008) Threatened birds of the world 2008 CD-ROM. These sources provide the information for species accounts for the birds on the IUCN Red List.

To provide new information to update this factsheet or to correct any errors, please email BirdLife

To contribute to discussions on the evaluation of the IUCN Red List status of Globally Threatened Birds, please visit BirdLife's Globally Threatened Bird Forums.

Additional resources for this species

ARKive species - African skimmer (Rynchops flavirostris) 0

Key facts
Current IUCN Red List category Near Threatened
Family Laridae (Gulls, Terns, Skimmers)
Species name author Vieillot, 1816
Population size 10000-17000 mature individuals
Population trend Decreasing
Distribution size (breeding/resident) 9,720,000 km2
Country endemic? No
Links to further information
- Additional Information on this species
- Projected distributions under climate change