Ocean Watch

Susan Scott

Frigatebirds are
a feisty, thieving lot

Last week, a frigatebird swallowed my turtle. This week a frigatebird bloodied my ear.

I was checking on a fairy tern chick perched deep inside a bush when a male frigatebird descended on me like a stealth bomber.

When I jumped back, there sat four frigatebird chicks on top of the bush. The one nearest stared at me, smugly it seemed, as if to say, "My dad kicks butt."

I don't know which chick belonged to that protective parent, (Hawaii's seabirds raise only one chick at a time), but his attack worked for them all. I left that bush in a hurry.

And then I did what everyone does while working in frigatebird nesting colonies: I picked up a stick.

No, we don't whack the birds with sticks here on Tern Island. We hold the sticks over our heads, because when defending their nests, frigatebirds and other seabirds strike the highest point of the intruder. I've had sticks nearly knocked from my hand as I walked along, happy it wasn't my head receiving the blow.

When I got back to the barracks after the frigatebird hit, I examined my minor wound in the mirror and smiled. How can you not admire such pluck? Whether it's fishing, stealing or fighting two-legged monsters, these feisty birds do what it takes to survive.

Exceptional flying ability is the key to frigatebirds' unique survival skills, and their air shows can awe even the most seasoned biologists.

One of these birds' best performances is fishing. After spotting a school of fish, a high-flying frigatebird tucks its wings and dives head first through the air. The bird levels to a glide, and then, on the wing, bends its long neck down, dipping its hooked beak into the water to snatch a fish.

Frigatebirds never intentionally land on the water, and catch fish only as deep as their bills are long. Their anatomy is such that once settled on water, they can't take off.

To get airborne, frigatebirds need a little elevation. Here in the colony, grounded birds, usually juveniles, jump up and down on their short legs and small feet, to get wind beneath their wings. Usually they make it but sometimes they need a boost.

I recently had the pleasure of helping launch a young frigatebird grounded in a tight spot. Lifting a frigatebird is like lifting a bag of feathers, because despite their large appearance (7-to-8-foot wingspans), frigatebirds weigh only about 3 pounds.

The instant my docile young featherweight had room to spread its wings, it took off. And not a scratch on me.

It's true that frigatebirds sometimes steal food from other birds, and snatch up chicks and turtles, but mostly, frigatebirds eat fish and squid they catch themselves.

Still, when hunger looms, or there's an extra mouth to feed, these birds live up to their Hawaiian name of iwa, meaning thief. Frigatebirds will peck at flying booby birds until they regurgitate their fish, and then swoop down to catch it neatly in midair.

This week, I found a frigatebird in a windless place, lying dead on the ground, and the sight brought tears to my eyes. They may attack, steal and kidnap, but I admire frigatebirds for their sharp survival skills as much as for their graceful beauty.

Next time I'm near their chicks, I'll carry a stick.

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Marine science writer Susan Scott can be reached at


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