Magnificent Frigatebirds (m) - Michael Vaughn


It’s almost exactly one year since I last posted about the Magnificent Frigatebird aka Man-o-War Bird (Fregata magnificens). You can read about their courtship displays, gular pouches, nesting habits, names, uses to mankind (if any), and 10 magnificent facts about them HERE. I’ve included some truncated facts below.

Now is a good time to revisit these wonderful sky pirates, for 2 reasons. The first is that photographer Michael Vaughn has produced some outstanding images of the species. The second is that I have just watched a characteristically superb BBC David Attenborough prog showing frigatebirds robbing tropicbirds of fish – despite them being lodged in the tropicbirds’ throats (for safekeeping…). Here’s the link to the sequence.

     CLICK LOGO TO VIEWmagnificent-frigatebird

Film clip: MF has TB by the leg & shakes it until the fish  (circled) drops outMagnificent Frigatebird steals fish from Tropicbird (BBC clip)



A male in flight (a most unusual shot, taken from above)Magnificent Frigatebird (m) - Michael Vaughn

Juveniles being delinquentMagnificent Frigatebirds (juv) - Michael Vaughn

A female in flight: the white front is the invariable distinguishing featureMagnificent Frigatebird (f) - Michael Vaughn

Maybe a bit of rivalry going on here….?Magnificent Frigatebird (f) - Michael Vaughn



  • The largest of several frigatebird species around the world
  • Found in tropical and subtropical waters
  • Females have white fronts – easily distinguishable from males in flight
  • Adult wingspan is 7+ feet = largest wing-area / bodyweight ratio of any bird
  • Can remain in flight and far out to sea for many days
  • KLEPTOPARASITES – will rob other seabirds of their food
  • Diet: mainly fish & squid from the water’s surface; seabird chicks
  • Nest in colonies, producing a single egg every other season
  • Don’t land on water, as they can’t float; and 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 & pre-dated AUDUBON

Albin’s Magnificent FrigatebirdFrigatebird_Eleazar_Albin_1737

Audubon’s Magnificent FrigatebirdAudubon Frigatebird

Magnificent Frigatebird (m) - Michael Vaughn

Credits: Michael Vaughn for all photos; cartoon from Birdorable; Mr Albin and Mr Audubon for ornithological awesomeness; TV CLIP  © copyright 2009 BBC

Magnificent Frigatebird (m) - Michael Vaughn


Magnificent Frigatebird (m) with inflated 'gular sac' (neck pouch) - Athena Alexander / Jet Eliot


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…frigatebird-displaying



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.Magnificent Frigatebird (m) and chick on nest - Athena Alexander / Jet Eliot



  • Magnificent Frigatebirds are the largest of several frigatebird species around the world
  •  They are found in tropical and subtropical watersimgres
  • 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




  • 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 female frigatebird hunts for food among the mangroves on AbacoMagnificent Frigatebird.Abaco Bahamas.2.12.Tom Sheley 2

A female frigatebird soars high over Marsh HarbourMagnificent Frigatebird, Marsh Harbour, Abaco - Tom Reed

This male has taken off before his gular pouch has had time to deflate fullyFrigatebirds (m) 2 Michael Vaughn

An osprey escorts a female frigatebird from his territory to a different bit of sky…Frigatebird & Osprey Michael Vaughn

Juvenile frigatebirdFrigatebird (juv) Michael Vaughn

A fully-inflated male with a droopy one who needs to get started quick if he’s going to get a mateFrigatebirds (m) 1 Michael Vaughn


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…Magnificent Frigatebird (f) hitching a boat ride (Cheryl Wile Ferguson)

Audubon’s Magnificent FrigatebirdAudubon 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)