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Great and Magnificent Frigatebirds: Galapagos’ Pirates of the Air

User Avatar Written by: Christopher Klassen
Galapagos frigatebird showing its gular sac.

Great and magnificent frigatebirds take their name from frigates, a kind of warship once commonly used by pirates. It may sound like a strange connection, but the feeding behaviors of frigate birds do, indeed, have an air of piracy to them. The two species of frigatebirds found in the Galapagos are remarkable avian creatures, infamous for attacking other seabirds and stealing their food, a practice ecologically known as kleptoparasitism.

Agile in the Air

Two species of frigatebirds are found in the Galapagos: magnificent frigatebirds (Fregata magnificens) and great frigatebirds (Fregata minor). Although these and other birds of the Fregatidae family can be found in other parts of North and South America, the Galapagos offers unique up-close viewing opportunities for visitors to the islands.

Frigatebirds are most sought after for the huge red leathery pouches that the males inflate during their courtship rituals. However, frigatebirds are also fascinating to observe in the air, where they spend most of their time. These birds stay in flight for months at a time, taking advantage of their broad wingspan and the winds and air currents that move over the ocean.

Unlike other Galapagos seabirds, such as the blue-footed booby, that are specifically adapted to dive deep into the water to catch fish, frigatebirds are more suited to flying in the air. Their large wingspan and sharply forked tails make them agile fliers. Their expert aerial maneuvering skills allow them to dip down to catch fish on the ocean’s surface. However, frigatebirds have another feeding strategy that does not require them to get too close to the water: They take food from more water-savvy birds by catching them mid-flight.

The frigatebird´s frequent targets are blue-footed boobies and red-billed tropicbirds. In the video below, you can see how the frigatebird struggles to take the tropicbird´s recent catch from it mid-flight!

Source: BBC

Although frigatebirds are found in coastal regions and feed on marine life, their feathers are not waterproof like the feathers of diving sea birds. This is part of why they use piratic air tactics to take the food of more water-friendly birds like boobies and tropicbirds.

Best places to experience frigatebirds

Colonies of frigatebirds can be spotted in the highlands of San Cristobal, circling a freshwater lake called El Junco. From the ridge of the crater lake, you can observe how frigates dive down to the surface of the volcanic crater lake, dipping their wings into the water before flying back up.

Great frigatebird

Displaying male great frigatebird at North Seymour Island

This behavior seems bizarre until you consider that the frigatebird’s feathers do not resist water. When they reach down to the sea surface to catch fish, their feathers get soaked with salt water, and the birds come to the freshwater lake to wash the excess salt off. Other places to observe these unique animals include islands like Genovesa, North Seymour, and Punta Pitt, also on San Cristobal Island.

A lucky or attentive viewer might have the chance to spot a frigatebird in a moment of thievery while visiting the Galapagos. However, even just observing these beautiful birds in flight is a treat. Great and magnificent frigatebirds can be seen on all of Metropolitan Touring’s itineraries. Make sure to ask your naturalist guide for more fascinating stories about these birds’ peculiar behavior.