Tropical to sub-tropical latitudes of the eastern Pacific Ocean and western Atlantic Ocean
Nest on land; feed in coastal to open ocean (pelagic) waters
Order Pelicaniformes (pelicans, boobies, and relatives), Family Fregatidae (frigatebirds)
The magnificent frigatebird is a large seabird that lives in the tropics, along both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of the Americas. It is one of the more common large seabirds throughout its range and is known for its interesting breeding and feeding behaviors.
As in all seabirds, magnificent frigatebirds nest on land, but they spend almost all of their time in flight, searching for food. This species prefers to nest off of the ground, in mangrove forests and other trees or bushes, but they will nest on the ground in places where vegetation is sparse. During courtship, the male magnificent frigatebird inflates and displays its bright red throat pouch and claps its bill, to attract a mate. After a successful courtship, these birds spend a substantial amount of time caring for their young. Chicks require nourishment from their parents for more than a year. Typically, the male abandons the nest after a few months and prepares for another courtship season. The female continues caring for the chick until it is mature enough to survive on its own. As a result, males mate every year while females mate every other year. Mature and immature individuals can be easily distinguished by the color of their heads: mature males and females have black heads, while immature individuals’ heads are white.
When not incubating an egg, magnificent frigatebirds spend their time in flight, foraging for food. They are known as some of the most efficient fliers among seabirds. Unlike many large seabirds, this species lives and feeds in the tropics, an oceanic region that is distinctly less productive than temperate zones. Magnificent frigatebirds must use very little energy when foraging because meals may be few and far between, and a less efficient lifestyle could lead to starvation. These birds are masters of using wind and other natural air movements to do most of the work for them. Another interesting behavioral trait of this species is its inability to land on the water. If a magnificent frigatebird gets wet, it is unable to fly. Instead of plunging or diving into the surface waters in search of prey, they use a variety of other methods to obtain food while staying dry. They are able to capture flyingfishes or squids right out of the air, when they leap from the water to escape other predators. Magnificent frigatebirds are also well-known “kleptoparasites.” They steal food from other seabirds by either harassing them until they drop their catch or knocking them in the stomach until they regurgitate what they have already swallowed. Using this variety of behaviors and their efficient flying style, magnificent frigatebirds can succeed even when faced with their limitations.
Magnificent frigatebirds are not hunted by people and they are fairly common throughout their range. Scientists believe their numbers to be increasing, and they consider this a species of least concern. However, recent genetic research has shown that the populations on some remote islands (such as the Galapagos Islands) may be somewhat distinct from the rest of the species, warranting special protection. Further research is needed to understand which, if any, populations of magnificent frigatebirds need this special consideration.
Oceana joined forces with Sailors for the Sea, an ocean conservation organization dedicated to educating and engaging the world’s boating community. Sailors for the Sea developed the KELP (Kids Environmental Lesson Plans) program to create the next generation of ocean stewards. Click here or below to download hands-on marine science activities for kids.