Magnificent Frigatebird Facts: They Love to Steal, from Fish to Sticks

Did you know that there’s a seabird that can stay in the air for up to two months without landing? Meet the Magnificent frigatebird – a fascinating bird species with unique characteristics. In this article, we’ll explore some intriguing Magnificent frigatebird facts that will leave you amazed and awestruck.

Magnificent frigatebird
Scientific name: Fregata magnificens
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Suliformes
Family: Fregatidae
Genus: Fregata

1. They have a red pouch on chests

The magnificent frigatebird is a member of the family Fregatidae. It’s one of the biggest seabirds with an average size of up to 3.7 feet (1.1 m) in length. It has a wingspan of 8 feet (2.4 m), which is 2 feet (0.6 m) longer than the height of an average man. This makes them the largest frigatebird species on earth. 

The most striking feature of these birds is their vivid red throat pouch. However, this feature is only visible in the breeding males. During the mating season, this pouch, also known as a gular sac, is utilized to woo females.

A male Magnificent frigatebird with full red sac

Females and juvenile birds have different colors compared to the completely black males. Female individuals feature a white chest and a dark head, whereas the young comes with a white abdomen and head which will turn into darker color later. Additionally, their upper wing also has a faint tan stripe.  

The deeply forked tail of the magnificent frigatebirds, often held closed in a point, aids in their aerial maneuverability. Their long and sturdy bill features a noticeable hooked tip.  

These birds derive their name from the French term “la fregate,” reminiscent of 17th to 19th-century warships. In Spanish, they are known as “rabihorcado,” which translates to “forked tail,” referencing their distinct tail structure.

2. Habitat

The magnificent frigatebird can be observed soaring over the subtropical and tropical waters off the coasts of America, spanning from northern Mexico to Ecuador along the Pacific coast and from Florida to southern Brazil along the Atlantic coast. Besides these locations, they also inhabit the Cape Verde islands in the Atlantic and the Galápagos islands in the Pacific Ocean.

These bird species can be found around coastlines, on islands, and over lagoons. They build their nests on small islands with dense vegetation, in mangroves, low trees, shrubs, or bushes.

3. Behavior

These seabirds are diurnal and primarily soar over the ocean to hunt for food. Despite being sociable, they usually fly alone. While on land, they typically perch on low trees and bushes.  

Renowned for their exceptional flying abilities, these birds are among the most skilled at utilizing natural air currents to minimize effort. They can remain airborne for days on end without touching down, earning them the moniker “the condor of the oceans.” However, they are quite awkward on the ground. Because of their small feet and short legs, they struggle to walk on land.

They are very important for the ecosystem

One interesting fact about magnificent frigatebirds is that their feathers lack waterproofing, although they are seabirds. This makes them incapable of landing on the ocean. If they were to do so, the water would weigh them down, impeding their ability to take flight and causing them to drown.

During the flight, these creatures typically remain silent, but when near the nest, they will emit a variety of rattling sounds like rattling, drumming, or clacking noises.

4. They are kleptoparasites

This species of seabird is unique in that it inhabits and feeds in the tropics, which is a less productive oceanic region compared to temperate zones. Because food sources can be scarce and far away, magnificent frigatebirds must conserve energy while foraging to avoid starvation. 

Their diet primarily consists of jellyfish, fish, squid, and crustaceans. They may also eat eggs, turtles, and chicks of other sea birds. 

As mentioned before, the plumage of these birds is not waterproof. As the result, magnificent frigatebirds cannot dive into the water to catch their prey. Instead, they rely on catching flyingfish and squids in mid-air when they leap from the water to evade other predators. Their long, narrow, hooked beak is specifically built to assist them to do this.

Magnificent frigatebirds are notorious for engaging in kleptoparasitism, where they steal food from other birds. They often target seabirds such as blue-footed boobies, harassing them until they release their prey.

The frigatebirds grab the tail feathers of other birds and vigorously shake them until they lose their prey. If those birds already swallow their prey, the frigatebirds will hit them in their stomach to make them throw the food. After that, they will grab the prey before it reaches the water’s surface. This method allows them to successfully obtain food despite their limitations.



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The magnificent frigatebird, in particular, has no natural predators, though mammals may occasionally get their eggs from nests. However, due to their attentive care, this is a rare occurrence.

The young frigatebirds practice the stealing technique from other birds by playing games with sticks.

5. Great frigatebird vs magnificent frigatebird

Although great and magnificent frigatebirds share a similar look as black seabirds with a red sac, there are still discernible differences between the two.

 Great frigatebirdsMagnificent frigatebirds
Appearance– Black feathers with green sheen
– Females have red eye rings
– The young come with dark brown-black wings and white underbelly and head are white. Their head may have patches of rust color.
– Black plumage with purple sheen
– Female with blue eye rings
– The young bear a striking resemblance to the magnificent frigates, but they do not have distinct rust-colored patches.
SizeSmaller, about 33-41 in (85-105 cm) longBigger, approximately 35-45 in (89-114 cm) long
HabitatFrom Wake Island to the Galapagos to New Caledonia, in Hawaii, Australia, and the Indian OceanFrom Mexico to Ecuador, Florida, and the Caribbean
SoundGobbling noiseDrumming or rattling noise
Place to forageFar from shoreNear shore

6. Reproduction

During each breeding season, magnificent frigatebirds practice serial monogamy (mate for life), forming pairs for the duration. To attract females, the males congregate in groups and perch on low trees, expanding their red sac and clattering their bills. It takes approximately 20 minutes for the males to fully inflate their sacs like a balloon. They also fly move their heads side to side and soar around female birds, emitting loud calls.

Males gather to call females

After mating, these magnificent frigatebirds will make a nest. Although they favor nesting in trees or bushes located in mangrove forests, they may resort to nesting on the ground in areas with little vegetation.

The male collects and even steals branches and twigs from other frigatebirds. The female will use these materials to construct a nest that has a size of 1 ft (0.3 m) in width. This process takes 13 days to complete.

The female lays about lay 1 to 2 white eggs. Both parents then incubate the eggs for a period of 50 to 60 days. For roughly three months, the chicks are cared for and fed by both parents. Subsequently, the male departs to prepare for the next breeding season, while the female remains to look after her offspring for an additional 9 months. That’s why the females can only breed every other year, whereas the males mate annually.

The young of magnificent frigatebirds receive parental care for up to a year after hatching, which is the longest time among avian species. Typically, the juveniles can fly within 4 to 6 months of hatching. While data on the lifespan of these birds is limited, it is estimated that they can live up to approximately 30 years.

7. Threats

Magnificent frigatebirds are not endangered species. Their population is estimated to be within the range of 100,000-499,999 individuals, according to the IUCN Red list.

However, these birds encounter challenges such as human activities in nesting regions, the arrival of new predators, the destruction of their habitats, and contamination. The presence of harmful elements like oil or plastic waste can harm or cause mortality among these seabirds.



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