Friday, December 19, 2014

Really Weird Birds: Red-tailed Tropicbird

The Red-tailed Tropicbird is found throughout the Indian and Pacific Oceans.  It nests on tropical islands, including Hawaii, but is otherwise mainly seen far out at sea, rarely near the shore.  They are more pelagic (seen on the open ocean) than other tropicbirds.

There are three species of tropicbirds making up the sole members of the family Phaethontidae: Red-tailed, White-tailed and Red-billed Tropicbirds. They are very graceful and fluid in flight.

The Red-tailed Tropicbird is about 16 inches long and its tail is another 14-21 inches long.  Its entire tail is not that long however; it has a few very long red tail feather streamers. Like its other family member species, they have mostly white feathers with long pointed wings, short necks, and wedge-shaped tails. Their bills are dark red, and they have black eye patches with a stripe.

Red-tailed tropicbird in flight
 Tropicbirds are incredibly graceful and agile in flight; however, they are very awkward and clumsy walking on land.  They have extremely short legs and webbed feet, well adapted to paddling in the open sea, but not for walking on solid ground.  Click here to watch a video of them waddling as best they can!  They have to scoot around on their bellies for the most part.

Even though they are clumsy on land, they are excellent flyers.  They can remain at sea for indefinite amounts of time, soaring up on riding ocean wind currents and flying with rapid wing beats.  When hunting, they will spiral downwards and plunge into the ocean to catch fish in their serrated beak.

These birds perform complex aerial courtship displays.  They will fly backwards and in circles, meanwhile waving their tails back and forth.  They may also engage in courtship bicycling flight, where one bird hovers over the other and then they shift positions.

Females lay one egg on the ground in a shaded area and both parents take turns incubating the egg.  After the chick hatches, it looks like the cutest white ball of fluff you have ever seen!  It looks like it’s been overtaken by fluff and the only thing visible are their tiny black beaks and beady little eyes.  In about 3 months fledging occurs and they begin to leave the nest.

None of the three species of tropicbirds are endangered or threatened.  With so many other seabirds becoming threatened by pollution, sea fishing, and disturbance of their island breeding grounds, this is a welcome anomaly.

Submitted by Sara Oliver, World Bird Sanctuary Naturalist

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