Phaethon – Tropicbirds

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

Tropicbirds are a distinct group of seabirds belonging to the family Phaethontidae, which includes species such as the Red-billed tropicbird, White-tailed tropicbird, and Red-tailed tropicbird. These birds are the only living members of their family, which shares a common ancestry with the now-extinct Prophaethontidae. They are primarily tropical species found in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, often associated with warm, equatorial waters.

One of the most striking features of tropicbirds is their elongated tail feathers, which can be as long as the rest of their body. These tail feathers, or streamers, are used in display during the breeding season and are one of the key identification features of these species. The birds’ plumage is predominantly white, which helps to reflect the sun’s heat, an adaptation to their tropical habitat. This is contrasted by dramatic black markings that adorn their face and wings, adding to their striking appearance.

Tropicbirds are known for their flying prowess; they have long, narrow wings that enable them to soar and glide gracefully and efficiently. Swift, wheeling maneuvers over the ocean typically characterize their flight. They are not often seen on land, as they spend most of their life at sea, only coming ashore to breed.

Despite their excellence in the air, tropicbirds are not as adept in the water. They have relatively weak and small legs, which makes them poor swimmers compared to other seabirds. However, they are capable divers. Using their wings to propel themselves, they plunge-dive into the water from great heights to catch prey. Their diet consists mainly of fish, flying fish, and squid, which they capture with their sharp, pointed beaks.