Great frigatebird

These birds spend weeks in the air and hunt, preen and even sleep while in flight

Charles J. Sharp

One of the most adept aviators of the avian world, embodying the very essence of grace and efficiency in flight. These birds are a marvel of evolutionary adaptation, possessing the lowest wing loading (a measurement that considers the bird’s body mass relative to its wing area) of any bird. This allows them to remain airborne for weeks, only landing on remote tropical islands to breed and roost.

Great frigatebirds have a distinctive appearance, with long, slender wings spanning up to 2.3 meters (7.5 feet) and deeply forked tails that enable sharp, precise maneuvers. Their striking silhouette is easily recognizable against the open sky. These birds are built not for swimming but for soaring. Their feathers are not waterproof, and they avoid the sea surface to prevent their wings from getting wet, which could hinder their flight.

Instead of diving for food, great frigatebirds have mastered the art of kleptoparasitism – they harass other seabirds, such as boobies and tropicbirds, in mid-air until they regurgitate their catch, which the frigatebirds then snatch up. Their diet mainly consists of fish and squid, which they capture from the ocean’s surface or through theft.

The behavior of following pods of tuna and dolphins is strategic, as these marine predators drive schools of fish to the surface, making it easier for frigatebirds to access their food. This inter-species dynamic is a fascinating example of how different animals can inadvertently assist each other in the wild.

Breeding colonies of great frigatebirds are spectacular and typically found on isolated islands. The males display their gular pouch – a striking red, balloon-like sac on their throats – which they inflate like a balloon to attract females. These displays, accompanied by clattering bills and waving heads, are a dramatic and noisy spectacle.

Distribution

Country
Population est.
Status
Year
Comments
American Samoa
2019
Aruba
2019
Non-Breeding
Australia
2019
Brazil
2019
British Indian T.
2019
Brunei
2019
Cambodia
2019
Seasonality Uncertain
Chile
2019
China
2019
Christmas Island
2019
Cocos Is. (Keeling)
2019
Breeding
Colombia
2019
Comoros
2019
Cook Islands
2019
Seasonality Uncertain
Costa Rica
2019
East Timor
2019
Non-Breeding
Ecuador
2019
Breeding: Galápagos
El Salvador
2019
Seasonality Uncertain
Fiji
2019
Non-Breeding
French Polynesia
2019
French Southern T.
2019
Seasonality Uncertain
Guam
2019
Non-Breeding
Guatemala
2019
Seasonality Uncertain
India
2019
Indonesia
2019
Japan
2019
Kenya
2019
Kiribati
2019
Seasonality Uncertain
Madagascar
2019
Malaysia
2019
Maldives
2019
Marshall Islands
2019
Breeding
Mauritius
2019
Non-Breeding
Mayotte
2019
Mexico
2019
Micronesia
2019
Breeding
Mozambique
2019
Nauru
2019
Non-Breeding
New Caledonia
2019
New Zealand
2019
Non-Breeding
Nicaragua
2019
Seasonality Uncertain
Niue
2019
Seasonality Uncertain
Nort. Mariana Is.
2019
Breeding
Oman
2019
Non-Breeding
Palau
2019
Breeding
Panama
2019
Non-Breeding
Papua New Guinea
2019
Seasonality Uncertain
Philippines
2019
Pitcairn
2019
Seasonality Uncertain
Réunion
2019
Breeding
Saint Helena
2019
Seasonality Uncertain
Samoa
2019
Seasonality Uncertain
Seychelles
2019
Breeding
Solomon Islands
2019
Somalia
2019
South Africa
2019
Sri Lanka
2019
Taiwan
2019
Tanzania
2019
Thailand
2019
Tokelau
2019
Seasonality Uncertain
Tonga
2019
Seasonality Uncertain
Tuvalu
2019
Seasonality Uncertain
US Minor Is.
2019
Non-Breeding
United States
10,000 pairs
Official estimate
LC
2019
Breeding: Hawaiian Is.
Vanuatu
2019
Vietnam
2019
Seasonality Uncertain
Wallis & Futuna
2019
Zimbabwe
2019
Non-Breeding

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Terrestrial / Aquatic

Altricial / Precocial

Polygamous / Monogamous

Dimorphic (size) / Monomorphic

Active: Diurnal / Nocturnal

Social behavior: Solitary / Pack / Herd / Colony

Diet: Carnivore / Herbivore / Omnivore / Piscivorous / Insectivore

Migratory: Yes / No

Domesticated: Yes / No

Dangerous: Yes / No