No doubt my memory of these images has been embellished over time. But I do still remember the shape of the “flying reptiles”. So much so that when I recently saw frigatebirds, the first thought that came to my mind was: Pterodactyls!
Frigatebirds look prehistoric to me, but they are also magnificent. I fact, their official name is Magnificent Frigatebirds. They have up to an eight-foot wingspan. Only a few albatross species have longer wings! The frigatebird’s body weight is small compared to its wingspan, making it the lightest bird relative to wing surface area. This makes it extremely buoyant. It can float for hours on the slightest breeze.
And that’s how I first saw them recently. I had the good fortune to join my friend Kay Past and her nieces and nephew on a cruise across the Gulf of Mexico. As we came into the port of Progreso, in the Yucatan, there they were, gliding alongside the ship as if they were attached to it by threads. They didn’t flap their long wings; they didn’t need to. Frigatebirds seem to be more at home on their wings than any other bird I’ve ever seen.
You don’t see frigatebirds just anywhere. They are sometimes referred to as a pelagic species. Pelagic birds are those that spend almost their lives at sea, either flying over it or sitting on the water. They only come to land to breed.
Magnificent Frigatebirds, however, are not truly pelagic because they cannot sit on the water. Oddly enough, their feathers are not very waterproof. If they get wet, they can become waterlogged and drown.
So these seabirds spend their lives offshore and in coastal areas. But they are almost always in the air. They eat and drink on the wing. It is a very aerial life.
A frigatebird’s feet are too small and weak for it to walk, so it usually doesn’t land on the ground either. If a tidbit washes up on the beach, a frigatebird can swoop down and pluck it up with its long, hooked beak without touching the ground.
Fortunately, frigatebirds live in the tropics where the warm shores grow mangrove swamps. The mangrove trees are the frigatebirds’ nesting spots. Even with weak feet they can perch on the thin twigs of the mangroves. The female carries broken off twigs to the top of one the mangroves and creates a flimsy nest. A male discovers the new nest and does a curious thing. He inflates his bright red throat pouch and leans his head way back, scanning the skies for the female. Eventually, she cruises over and sees his beautiful red balloon and lands. The male excitedly chuckles and rubs his balloon on her. If she is impressed she stays and mates with him; if not, she leaves. Once he has secured an adoring mate, the male allows the female to occupy the nest. She lays a single egg, and one or both parents stay with it until hatching and fledging.
Why not leave the egg alone for a little while? Parent frigatebirds deserve some alone time, don’t they?
Not possible if you are a frigatebird. Leave the egg or chick unprotected for a moment, and it is a goner. And the culprit is usually another frigatebird.
Frigatebirds are pirates. In naval terms, a frigate is a relatively small, fast warship that can maneuver well in combat. It can outmaneuver and overtake larger vessels. A light frigate could be used as a pirate ship. Hence, a frigatebird is an agile and quick pirate.
Frigatebirds take much of their food from other birds, even from their own kind. If a gull has captured a fish and is flying homeward with it, the frigatebird zooms in and tweaks the gull’s tail. The harassed gull lets go of his fish, and the swift frigatebird catches it mid-air.
Piracy comes so naturally to them that fishing for their own food is just a sideline. When a frigatebird does catch its own food, it prefers nabbing flying fish as they leap out of the waves. Occasionally, it will zip along the wavetops and dip its bill and maybe its head, just under the surface of the water to grab a minnow or a jellyfish. But it never dives. Remember, Magnificent Frigatebirds are not waterproof!