Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Magnificent Frigatebird

Birds have all sorts of names.  Some are descriptive, like the Blue and Gold Macaw.  Sometimes these names are much more interesting.  For example we have the Diabolical Nightjar, the Invisible Rail, and the Siamese Fireback. 
A female frigatebird displaying it's "magnificent" wingspan (photo: the wikipedia files)
One of my favorite bird names is the Magnificent Frigatebird (Fregata magnificens).  First of all, it just sounds really awesome.  For something to be officially called “magnificent,” it truly must be…and they are!  Second, they have a wingspan of 7-8 feet, but only weigh about four pounds!  That is almost the size of a Bald Eagle's wingspan, with only half of the weight.  Charles Darwin himself called these birds, “the condors of the ocean.”  That is due to their large size and the fact that they spend almost their entire life soaring effortlessly over water.  They can be found in the Caribbean Sea and along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of Central and South America. 

The frigatebird is the only seabird where the males and females have different coloration.  The males' feathers are completely black, with some green iridescence on the head and purple on the wings.  They also have a large patch of skin on the neck that they can inflate into a large red sac to impress the females during courtship displays.  The females are more of a very dark brown than a black, lack the red sac, don't have the iridescence, and have a white patch of feathers across the chest and belly.  However, the females are a little larger than the males. 
A male frigatebird displaying for the females (photo: the wikipedia files)
You might be wondering why these birds spend almost their whole lifetime flying over water.  First, their feathers don’t shed water well, unlike many other seabirds. Because of this they can only spend a few minutes at a time in the water before they get too heavy to fly.  And secondly, they have very small feet and short legs for their size.  This makes walking or running on the ground difficult and awkward.  Because they can't spend a lot of time on the surface of the water, the Magnificent Frigatebird eats mostly flying fish, which they capture with their beaks just above the surface of the water. 

These birds build their nests mainly in mangrove trees or on coral atolls, where the females will lay one egg every other year.  They also nest in colonies with many frigatebirds living and nesting in close proximity. 

The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) considers these wonderful creatures Least Concern, meaning they are abundant in their habitat.  It is however on the 2014 State of Birds Watch List, meaning that their numbers are declining, and without future conservation efforts, Magnificent Frigatebirds could eventually go extinct.  The first step to protecting these birds is education.  Just by learning about them you are starting to help them.

Submitted by Mike Cerutti, World Bird Sanctuary Naturalist/Trainer 

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