Phaethontidae – Tropicbirds

Three good looking species of seabirds with long tails, rarely seen on land

This family is the only extant (living) group within the order Phaethontiformes, including the now-extinct Prophaethontidae family. Tropicbirds are an exceptional sight, often recognized by their striking white plumage contrasted with black markings on their faces and wings and, notably, their elongated tail feathers, which can be as long as their body.

Tropicbirds are medium-sized seabirds with three existing species: the red-billed tropicbird, the white-tailed tropicbird, and the red-tailed tropicbird. They inhabit tropical oceans and are often seen soaring over open waters, far from land. These birds have adapted to an oceanic lifestyle, with their bodies streamlined for flight rather than swimming. Their legs are small and weak, which makes them less adept at swimming or walking; they are set far back on the body, aiding in their streamlined flight and making them powerful divers.

Tropicbirds feed primarily on fish and squid, which they catch by performing spectacular plunges from the air, diving deep into the water with closed wings. This hunting technique is a testament to their flying skills and precise vision, which allows them to spot prey from great heights.

Breeding occurs on remote oceanic islands, where tropicbirds nest in cliffs or on the ground, often in areas inaccessible to predators. Courtship is a spectacular sight, involving aerial displays and calls. Males showcase their long tail feathers to attract females.

After hatching, tropicbird chicks are cared for by both parents, who take turns fishing at sea and feeding their young. One unique adaptation of tropicbird chicks is their ability to float on the sea for days to lose weight, which is essential before they can take their first flights. During this time, they are vulnerable and must rely on their cryptic plumage to protect them from predators.