Black Skimmer

An adult Black Skimmer commits infanticide on its chick on a beach of Florida's Gulf Coast. Photo Courtesy of Jim Gray

On the wide expanse of the Gulf Coast of Tampa Bay, sea breeze whips up the sand as it is cooked under the intense Florida sun. Recognized as one of the most popular and most visited areas in Florida, this stretch of the Florida coastline hosts a wide array of activities for any type of beach goer. However, it's not just the humans that come to enjoy the sun and sand. 

It may seem picturesque, beach chairs and kites all around and native wildlife coinhabiting the beach with mankind, but this is far from the truth. Beth Forys, professor of environmental studies, and Eckerd College students Sarah Beres, Abigail McKay and Olivia Spicer recently published an article revealing a little known fact about black skimmer seabird behavior. Increasing outward stress is causing the adults of these nesting colonies to commit infanticide on their chicks.

Black skimmers (Rhynchops niger), are threatened in the state of Florida. Named after their unique beak shape, these birds are known to frequent Florida shorelines and hunt prey by skimming the top of the water and snatching up any prey that hits their beak.

Infanticide, or the killing of offspring, is a common occurence in the animal kingdom. Animals kill their young for a plethora of reasons ranging from competition from other mating pairs to lack of available food sources. 

“The main objective of our study was to determine the rate of infanticide in the three black skimmer colonies in the Tampa Bay region,” senior Olivia Spicer said. “We found that over a third of the infanticide attempts occured after some disturbance.”

Spicer said that disturbance such as humans walking by causes the birds to flush or fly up. According to Spicer, this flushing would spook any chicks in the nesting area, causing them to run frantically. Once the adults return to the ground, any displaced chicks are quickly grabbed and killed by the adults, believing that these chicks are not their own. In intense disturbance situations, adults will go as far to kill their own young in a stress-induced panic, as the team’s research suggests. 

“We essentially concluded that really high stress brought on by tourists along with an introduced coyote population was probably what caused high infanticide rates,” senior Sarah Beres said. 

Yet, when faced with these results, it is easy to forget the grim nature of what these student researchers are witnessing on an increasingly frequent basis. 

“It was the first time we were seeing a lot of chicks at the same time…We were kind of in awe looking at these cute baby birds,” Beres said about her first observation of black skimmer infanticide. “You kind of are confused and then in shock of what's happening and then you're like oh my, like it's trying to kill its own chick right now, [it’s] a little bit horrific. But then after that immediate reaction, you want to know why that’s happening.”

Other disturbances seen by researchers include increases in coyote activity at night, which raid the skimmers’ nests, along with more intentional interactions caused by visitors to the beaches. According to the team, these ranged from discarding trash within the nesting area and children chasing the birds away from their offspring, to more intense incidents like an umbrella thrown into the area and fireworks being lit off in and around the roped-off nesting sight. 

“It was really frustrating to see that [human-caused disturbances] and see the level of entitlement that people felt about…this small area relative to the whole beach being taken over by birds,” Beres said. “If you look at it from their perspective, the entire beach has been taken over by people.”

With the St.Petersburg/Clearwater area drawing in around 6.5 million tourists every year, according to visitclearwater.com, and Pinellas County being the densest populated county in the state of Florida, according to towncharts.com, Black Skimmer nesting colonies inevitably will face large amounts of human contact, increasing the likelihood of negative disturbances. 

According to the researchers, negative interactions with beachgoers were memorable, but few in number. However, there are glimmers of positivity in the constructive and educational interactions the Eckerd students had with curious visitors.

“There were these little girls who were super interested in the birds,” Spicer said. “They came up…I let her use my binoculars and her face lit up. It was kind of cool to see them come out of their shells … [and be] so interested in what I was interested in.”

Both Beres and Spicer spoke of numerous instances where beach visitors would bring binoculars and look intently on the nesting birds, eager to learn more about them from the researchers stationed at the nesting site. The issue with harmful interactions from people stem from a few individuals ruining it for the birds and humans alike. 

Both students have interest in what improvements could be made to the management of these colonies. The two Eckerd students said that, along with increases to physical protection like cameras and fencing, education and the gaining of respect for the natural environment is crucial. 

To Spicer and Beres, sheer education on the subject is not enough to solidify the survival of these fragile bird colonies. 

“It’s cliche, but just be respectful to those around you, and that isn’t exclusive to people,” Spicer said. “I think people should be aware of their surroundings and think, if you live in Florida, you should know about Florida wildlife.”

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