The Galápagos Islands, scattered in the Pacific Ocean some 1,000 kilometres from the shores of Ecuador, are home to some truly fantastic creatures. Their diverse landscape forms the perfect home for a number of birds – with up to 56 native species.
You’ll also find two of the world’s five species of frigatebirds in the Galápagos, the Great frigatebird and the Magnificent frigatebird. In this Wildlife Fact File, we’re on a journey to discover more about these illustrious creatures.
Introducing the frigatebird
These large seabirds are notable for their dark plumage and expansive wings. The Great frigatebird, or fregata minor, tend to weigh from 1-1.6 kilograms, while the Magnificent frigatebird, or fregata magnificens comes in at about 1-2 kg, making it the biggest of all the frigatebird species.
With the largest wing-to-body ratio of any bird, frigatebirds make use of their mighty wings to soar high in the sky. This equates to a wingspan of up to 230 centimetres on average for the Great frigatebird, and 244 centimetres for the Magnificent frigatebird, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
The two Galápagos frigatebirds are fairly similar in appearance, but there are a couple of ways to distinguish them. In addition to being the larger of the two species, the Magnificent frigatebird has a purplish sheen to its black feathers, while the great frigatebird’s plumage has a more green tint.
Frigatebirds in flight
Frigatebirds are truly impressive fliers. In addition to their wings, they are also gifted with scissor-like tail feathers, granting them amazing agility and manoeuvrability in the air.
The birds’ large wingspan enables them to soar and glide with ease for hours on end with minimal effort, often without needing to even flap their wings. Using thermals and warm air currents, frigatebirds can reach dizzying altitudes of up to 2,500 metres.
Able to fly for days on end, frigatebirds also have the enviable ability to actually sleep while in flight. This has been recently confirmed by research that observed Great frigatebirds resting one hemisphere of their brain at a time, while keeping one eye open to stay airborne.
A bird by any other name
With one of the more memorable monikers in the bird kingdom, frigatebirds, also known as ‘man-of-war’ birds, got their name from their pillaging behaviours. These pirates of the bird world are known to steal food from other birds while in flight. This practice is known as kleptoparasitism, and usually involves harassing other birds until they drop their prey.
Frigatebirds also feed by skimming food off the ocean’s surface. Unlike other birds, their feathers lack waterproofing, inhibiting them from diving into the sea. Instead they rely on their long, hooked beaks to snatch their prey from the water without wetting their feathers. Their food of choice ranges from squid, crabs and fish, to small turtles and jellyfish.
Attracting a mate
Unlike other seabirds, male and females frigatebirds are distinctly different in their appearance. Males have a large, bright red gular pouch by their throat, which plays an integral role in the courtship process.
The male birds will wait for females to fly overhead, attracting their attention by puffing up their red pouch and shaking their head and wings. If a female decides to respond to the calls of the males, she will descend and come to nest with the male. Female frigatebirds lay only a single egg that they incubate with their male partner.