Frigate Birds

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Frigate birds

Frigate birds are five species of oceanic birds that make up the family Fregatidae. Frigate birds occur along the coasts of the tropical oceans, but also hundreds of miles out to sea.

Frigate birds typically weigh about 3 lb (1.5 kg), but the spread of their long, narrow, swept-back, pointed wings can exceed 6.5 ft (2 m). These are highly favorable wing-loading characteristics, and frigate birds are among the most skilled of the birds at flying and seemingly effortless gliding. Their tail is long, with extensive pointed forks. Their legs are short, and the small, partially webbed feet are only used for perching. Frigate birds are very ungainly on the ground and in the water , on which they rarely set down.

The bill of frigate birds is long, and both the upper and lower mandibles hook downwards. The plumage is a dark-brownish black, with whitish underparts in some species, but the throat is naked and colored a bright red in males. The throat sac of male frigate birds can be inflated with air and is used to impress the females, both visually and by helping to resonate the loud rattlings and yodels of courting males.

Frigate birds are highly graceful and skilled aerialists. They are excellent fliers, both in terms of the distance they can cover across the vast oceans and their extremely skilled maneuverability in flight. They feed on fish , squid , jellyfish , and other invertebrates by hovering over the surface of the ocean and swiftly diving to snatch prey at the surface, often without getting their body feathers wet. Frigate birds frequently catch flying fish during those brief intervals when both bird and fish are airborne. Frigate birds sometimes predate the young of other seabirds, especially terns and noddys.

Frigate birds also commonly swoop aggressively on pelicans , boobies, and gulls , poking them and biting their tail and wings. This pugnacious behavior forces these birds to drop or disgorge any fish that they have recently caught and eaten, which is then consumed by the frigate bird. Frigate birds also force other seabirds to drop scarce nesting material, which is also retrieved. This foraging strategy is known to scientists as kleptoparasitism. In view of the well-deserved, piratical reputation of frigate birds, they are known as man-o'-war birds.

Frigate birds nest in trees or on remote, rocky ledges. Females bring sticks and other appropriate materials to the nest site, where the male constructs the nest. Both sexes of the pair share in incubating the eggs and raising their babies. Frigate birds do not migrate, but they may wander extensively during their non-breeding season.

The magnificent frigate bird (Fregata magnificens) is a seasonally common seabird around the Florida Keys, and an occasional visitor elsewhere in the coastal southeastern and southwestern United States, ranging through the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and western Mexico, and as far south as the Atlantic coast of Brazil, the Pacific coasts of Ecuador and Peru, and the Galapagos Islands. Male birds have a purplish black body and a bright-red throat pouch. The females are browner and have a white breast, and juveniles are lighter brown and have a white head and breast.

Both the great frigate bird (Fregata minor) and the lesser frigate bird (F. ariel) have pan-tropical distributions, occurring in tropical waters over most of the world (but not in the Caribbean). Much more local distributions are exhibited by the Ascension frigate bird (F. aquila), which breeds only on Ascension Island in the South Atlantic, while the Christmas Island frigate bird (F. andrewsi) only breeds on Christmas Island in the South Pacific Ocean.

Bill Freedman