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The Magnificent Frigatebird

June 1, 2010


I was born a few miles from the ocean and I have spent the majority of my life with a few minutes drive of it. The Magnificent Frigatebird, a bird that spends the entirety of their life above the sea or roosting near by does not swim and rarely, if ever, ventures into the water of its own accord. I can relate.

And yet I have to distance myself from the comparison. The Magnificent Frigatebird (Fregata magnificens) feeds on jellyfish, squid and flying fish and is known as a kleptoparasite – or one who steals food from others. I have no need to steal and I’ll pass on the jellyfish.
Their name is no misnomer. They are amazingly magnificent in my opinion. Frigatebirds are remarkably light, with a skeleton that weighs less than the feathers that cover them. At two and half pounds and a wingspan close to eight feet, they have the greatest weight to wingspan ration of any bird. They have a scissor-like tail that they flex open and closed and long thin wings that make them amazing aerialists that can stay aloft for hours at a time. If you see one flap their wings you’re lucky.

To catch their food they skim the surface and snag prey off the top, expertly adjusting their catch and devouring it on the wing. They also target the catch of other birds, preferably those with pouch bills like pelicans. A full pouch is a good indication that they have something worth stealing. Is there any wonder why they’re also called a Man-O-War Bird?
Frigatebirds spend most of their life within miles of shore and many roost on isolated islands and keys where they are protected from humans and nest predators. Unlike most seabirds, Frigatebirds stay close to their nesting sites throughout the year. Females lay one white egg in a flimsy nest in the mangroves. Adult males are all black with a red gular sack, or pouch that they inflate to court mates. Females and juveniles have some white around the neck and chest. Both sexes help incubate the egg. It reminds me of penguin parental care and recent DNA analysis suggests that Frigatebirds are more closely related to penguins, rather than pelicans as was previously thought.

On a sunny, windy afternoon I watched six Frigatebirds soaring thirty feet over the manmade islands that lead across to Sanibel Island, FL. The birds crossed their tail feathers and flexed them open as the winds dictated. Below them hundreds of people splashed about in the water. If any of them recognized the birds above they didn’t let on. They missed out on something truly magnificent.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Milla Voellinger permalink
    June 4, 2010 8:24 pm

    I have lived near this coast for most of my life and May 2nd was the first time that I had noticed these magnificent birds! We spotted 8 of them putting on quite an aerial show over the Sanibel causeway. The osprey that flew by was dwarfed by the frigatebirds. What an awesome experience!

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