The famous American poet, Walt Whitman, was so impressed with the Frigate bird’s aerial prowess that he wrote a poem in tribute, Thou Who Hast Slept All Night Upon The Storm. Early seafarers called the Frigate birds the Man-of-War birds; likening their speed and maneuverability to war ships. Others, observing the Frigate birds’ tactic of attacking fish carrying sea birds in flight to steal their catches, called them Pirate birds. And still others, because the Frigate birds belong to the order Pelicaniformes, call them Frigate Pelicans.
Regardless of one’s preferred name for them, the Frigate birds inspire both awe, for their seemingly effortless flight, and disgust for their infamous feeding habits. When we look toward our Caribbean skies and see a Frigate bird slowly circling upon a thermal with no discernable movement of its wings, most of us probably wish we were that bird, at least for a short while.
There are only five species of Frigate birds found world-wide. The species we see here in the Caribbean as well as along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the U.S. is the Magnificent Frigate bird, Fregata magnificens. With bodies about the size of a small hen and wingspans of up to 8 feet, the Magnificent Frigate bird is an impressive sight.
Magnificent Frigate males have a featherless gular, or throat sac, that is a brilliant scarlet red. The males’ bodies are covered in black feathers with the exception of their scapular, shoulder, feathers which are an iridescent purple. Females have white feathers on their chests while the remainder of their bodies is also covered in black feathers. Both males and females have long, severely forked tail feathers giving them an overall length of almost 40 inches. Juveniles of both sexes have white feathers on their heads and necks. Mature Magnificent Frigate females have a blue eye ring that is lacking in the males.
Classified as members of the Pelicaniformes, they have webbed feet though, unlike their Pelican cousins, Frigates’ webbing does not extend to their talons thus leaving their toes free for gripping. Additionally, unlike their Pelican cousins, Frigate birds do not produce the oil necessary to waterproof their feathers so it is extremely uncommon to see a Frigatebird in the water. If one happens to fall into the water it faces an exhausting task in taking flight before its water-soaked feathers pull it under.
The males’ red gular pouch is used in the Magnificent Frigate birds’ courting rituals. Groups of males take up positions on the ground and wait for a female to fly over. As the female approaches, the males emit a rattle-like call and shake their heads from side to side as they inflate their scarlet throat pouches. The female decides which of the males is most attractive and then lands beside him.
Sexual maturity is reached around 6 years and mating pairs produce one egg which is laid in low scrub in a nest built of twigs. For the first 3-4 months, both the male and female feed the voracious hatchling and then the male departs, leaving the female alone to feed the chick for another 8 months. Just recently a female Magnificent Frigate bird from an island off the coast of Australia carrying a tagging device was tracked 2,500 miles as she searched for food for her chick.
Since it takes almost a year to raise one chick, females do not mate every year. Studies of the Magnificent Frigate birds found in the largest breeding colony in the Caribbean on the island of Barbuda indicate that one male mating with 3 different females over a two year period only produces 2 hatchlings.
As stated above, Magnificent Frigate birds lack the oily feathers to keep them afloat so they must feed in the air or on land. With the ability to dive at speeds up to 250 miles per hour, the Magnificent Frigate bird is adept at ambushing and snatching fish from other birds in flight. They also feed upon jellyfish, turtle hatchlings and other sea life floating near the surface by flying low to the water and grabbing prey with their long, slender hooked beaks. When feeding upon land they ply the beaches taking sea life that has washed ashore or crabs and hatchling sea turtles as they dig their way out of nests and head to sea; sometimes eliminating most of a hatching of turtles when flocks of Frigates find an emerging nest.