Vision and the foraging technique of skimmers (Rynchopidae)

Graham Martin, LM Rojas, R McNeil

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

20 Citations (Scopus)


In birds, the position and extent of the region of binocular vision appears to be determined primarily by feeding ecology. Of prime importance is the degree to which vision is used for the precise control of bill position when foraging. Skimmers (Rynchops, Rynchopidae, Charadriiformes) exhibit a unique foraging behaviour and associated structural adaptations. When foraging they fly low and straight over water with the mouth open and the mandible partially submerged. Items that are hit by the lower mandible are grasped by a rapid reflex bill closure. It is believed that this unique 'skimming' foraging technique is guided by tactile rather than visual cues. It is predicted therefore that the visual fields of skimmers will have similar topography to those of other tactile feeding birds. We determined retinal visual fields in Black Skimmers Rynchops niger using an ophthalmoscopic reflex technique. Contrary to expectation the visual fields of Black Skimmers are not like those of other tactile feeders. They show high similarity with those of birds that feed by precision-pecking. The projection of the bill tip when the mouth is closed and when open (as in skimming) falls within the frontal binocular field and there is an extensive blind area above and behind the head. We argue that this visual field topography functions to achieve accurate bill positioning with respect to the water surface when skimming and, because foraging skimmers cannot determine the identity of what they are seizing as they skim, to permit the visual identification of prey items held between the mandibles after they have been taken from the water surface. When skimming, only a small portion of the binocular field, approximately 5 degrees wide and extending 5 degrees above the horizontal, looks in the direction of travel. The small size of this forward-facing region of binocularity in skimmers suggests that control of locomotion in birds does not necessarily require extensive binocularity in the direction of travel.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)750-757
Number of pages8
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2007


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