Creature Feature: The Magnificent Frigatebird

A male magnificent frigatebird puffs up its throat pouch to attract a mate. Photo by US Fish and Wildlife Service.For humans, the ability to distinguish one sex from another is second-nature. Among seabirds, however, one of the only species with easily spotted distinctions between males and females is the magnificent frigatebird. For these birds gender comes down to basic, physical characteristics; namely, black-and-purple shades for males, and white breast-patches for females. These distinctions are handy during mating, when males attract the opposite sex by turning their throat pouch –normally tiny and on their lower neck– into an enormous red balloon for over twenty minutes. They draw attention to high-flying females by rocking their heads from side to side, shaking their wings, and calling out. If the attraction is mutual, the birds pick a nesting site in the mangrove forests (for a single egg) and begin a breeding season that could last as long as two years. These frigates are notorious feeders, known to accost other birds in the air and wrestle food out of their beaks (an aggressive form of scavenging?). Towards humans, however, they are completely harmless.The birds are best known for their graceful, near-constant flight. Their beautiful soaring even lead Charles Darwin to dub them the “condors of the ocean”. The birds can spend days and nights on the wing. They are easily spotted, since their black feathers are iridescent and hard-to-miss under the sunlight.Partially due to their incredible flying ability, magnificent frigatebirds are found all over the world, and we’re glad to have them here in the Gulf.Female Magnificent Frigatebird hovering over the Gulf of Mexico off St. Petersburg, FL.Photo by Matt Edmonds at Favre is GRN’s Communications Director. These Creature Features are made possible through a GRN parternship with Tulane University’s Service-Learning Program and Dr. Jordan Karubian. GRN Media and Communications Intern, Jacob Dilson, also contributed to this article.

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