FRIGATEBIRDS aka MAN-O-WAR BIRDS: TRULY MAGNIFICENT
I have a feeling that today’s header image may be one of the best I have been fortunate enough to be able to use. Certainly in the top ten. This is a male frigatebird (Fregata magnificens) in the breeding season, with his extraordinary inflatable GULAR POUCH fully blown up. He is at his most chest-burstingly dashing, at least to female frigatebirds, and this great capture by photographer Athena Alexander from the excellent blog of JET ELIOT, shows one of the wonders of the bird world. A glimpse of his mate can be seen just behind his head, but frankly he has made the story his own! And just look at the size of his wings. If a bird can steal limelight, he has effortlessly done so.
The image below shows the male enacting his courtship display. Jet Eliot describes it thus: “During courtship display this balloon-like sac takes about 20 minutes to fully inflate. It is featherless, scarlet red, and tight as a drum. It’s so big it distorts him. When he’s ready and has a suitable audience of females flying overhead, he points his face skyward and rapidly beats his wings against the balloon, creating a low, booming sound”. The male’s pouch is not entirely inflated. A female is nestled under the his protective wing. Presumably she has been won over and mating will soon occur once the performance ends. Or maybe she’s bored with the whole routine – she looks rather as though she has seen it all before…
Even on the nest, males are keen to be in the picture. Not for them the ‘absentee father’ role, out fishing the entire day. Instead, they share chick-care duties, looking after the single enormous, fluffy chick. An adult pair stays together for the year, forsaking all other. Chick care takes a long time from egg to fledging and beyond – so much so that frigatebirds only breed every other year, and always produce a single egg. For this reason, habitat destruction of breeding grounds has a far greater effect on population numbers than for birds that breed annually.
10 MAGNIFICENT FACTS ABOUT FRIGATEBIRDS
- Magnificent Frigatebirds are the largest of several frigatebird species around the world
- They are found in tropical and subtropical waters
- Females have white fronts that make them easily distinguishable in flight
- An adult’s wingspan is 7+ feet, with the largest wing-area / bodyweight ratio of any bird
- Frigatebirds can remain in flight and far out to sea for many days
- They are KLEPTOPARASITES and will rob other seabirds of their food
- Their diet is mainly fish & squid snatched from the water’s surface; also seabird chicks
- They nest in colonies, producing a single egg every other season
- They don’t actually land on water, as they don’t float; and they are feeble at walking on land
- One of the earliest depictions of a frigatebird is by Eleazar Albin in 1737. He was a naturalist contemporary of MARK CATESBY and pre-dated AUDUBON
NAMING THE FRIGATEBIRD: A POTTED HISTORY
- Columbus encountered them on his first voyage in 1492, but knew them by their Spanish name rabiforçado or ‘fork-tail’.
- The use of the name ‘frigatebird’ was first recorded in 1667 and referenced the frigate warship, a powerful sea-vessel
- ‘Man-o-War Bird’ was the name given to the bird by English mariners in the Caribbean, being the colloquial name given by sailors to a frigate.
A MAN-O-WAR GALLERY
A female frigatebird hunts for food among the mangroves on Abaco
A female frigatebird soars high over Marsh Harbour
This male has taken off before his gular pouch has had time to deflate fully
An osprey escorts a female frigatebird from his territory to a different bit of sky…
A fully-inflated male with a droopy one who needs to get started quick if he’s going to get a mate
ARE FRIGATEBIRDS ANY USE TO MAN OR BEAST?
Yes, emphatically so, to man anyway. Mariners through the ages have used frigatebirds as indicators of nearby land – not necessarily visible, but within sailing distance. And fishermen through the ditto have used them as reliable indicators of where fish are to be found. As an example from personal experience on Abaco, going fishing out of Casuarina into the deep waters of the open sea, the sight of high-flying frigatebirds signals ‘get ready to fish’. They are scouting around for fish, and so are you. But they know where the fish are. Follow them and you
will may be rewarded. Because where there are fish for seabird predators, there are fish for the large fish predators – mahi mahi, tuna and wahoo, for example. This is not my main type of fishing, but each time we have been out in those waters – with the Delphi Club often a still-visible speck on the horizon – the frigatebirds have led us to good catches of mahi mahi (= dorado or ‘dolphin’). Last year, under the watchful gaze of the frigatebirds, in a heart-stopping moment I jumped a wahoo. If that sounds slightly rude, it isn’t – and I didn’t catch it anyway. It just leapt vertically right out of the water without taking the goodies…
STOP PRESS Cheryl Wile Ferguson sent me a great photo of a female MF being sociable with humans in the Galapagos. She hitched a ride for 2 hours during a sea crossing…
Audubon’s Magnificent Frigatebird
Credits: first and foremost to Athena Alexander and Jet Eliot for use permission for images 1 – 3 (taken on Galapagos) and much invaluable info; as ever to Tom Sheley (4), Tom Reed (5) and Michael Vaughn (6,7,8,9) for their photos; Cartoon from Birdorable; other images open source; magpie pickings for facts and figures; and some limited personal experience (regrettably but unsurprisingly all my photos of frigatebirds flying, diving, triumphantly catching fish etc are too crap to use)
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Thank you for including my photo in such a great write-up! The sight of a MF biting a boobie’s tail, the boobie squawking and dropping its catch while the MF scoops the fish up in mid air is a memory that makes me smile every time. Lucky you to see them as often as you do.
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Magnificent and on the bucket list
If only they flew over East Anglia…(and bred there – even better!) RH
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Thanks so much, RH, for this comprehensive and delightful post, and for your generous and kind credit to Athena and me. One of my favorite birds on this planet, it is a pleasure to share this magnificent creature, and your post was a joy. All the photos are terrific, I enjoyed your experiences and information, the old drawings, and even the frigatebird graphic as an info divider. I have a good idea of the time you devoted to this post, and it is much appreciated. 🙂
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This was a joyful post to compose! Occasionally (as you well know) the odd post may be a bit of a grind, but definitely not one with such wonderful creatures and material to work with! RH
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