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Kidadl Team

AUGUST 06, 2021

Tropicbirds: 21 Facts You Won't Believe!

Tropicbirds are medium-sized, tropical seabirds inhabiting islands and remote landmasses on the Indian Ocean, Pacific Ocean, and Atlantic Ocean. There are three species of tropicbirds sharing some common characteristics, food habits but slightly different appearances and sizes. The white-tailed tropicbird Phaethon lepturus, the red-tailed tropicbird Phaethon rubricauda, and the red-billed tropicbird Phaethon aethereus are the three tropicbird species without any close relatives. Males and females of the white-tailed tropicbirds show some sexual dimorphism. The females are larger than the males. The males, however, have longer tail streamers. The male red-billed tropicbirds show a difference in the length of their bills and wing chords.

All three tropicbird species have mostly white plumage covering their body. The bill of the white-tailed tropicbirds is yellow, and their body has fine black markings. The smallest of all the three tropicbird species is the white-tailed tropicbirds. They are the most commonly found and widely distributed in their range. The red-winged tropicbird plumage shows fine black-barred patterns on the inner wings. Tropicbirds look similar with unique long tail streamers, black and white plumage. They have webbed feet, red or yellowtail and bills, and wings with black markings.  

You may also check out the fact files on bee hummingbirds and orb-spider weavers from Kidadl.

Tropicbirds Interesting Facts

What type of animal are tropicbirds?

As the name suggests, tropicbirds are sea birds living near tropical waters.

What class of animals do tropicbirds belong to?

Tropicbirds are birds belonging to the Phaethontidae family. They have no other close bird relatives. There are three common tropicbird species, the red-billed tropicbird, the white-tailed tropicbird, and the red-tailed tropicbird.

How many tropicbirds are there in the world?

It is difficult to specify the exact number of tropical birds living in the world. Some studies suggest there are 40,000 to 80,000 red-tailed tropicbirds inhabiting areas in the eastern Pacific Ocean.

As for the red-billed tropicbird Phaethon aethereus, it is estimated that 3000-13,000 mature birds are there in the western Atlantic. Some studies say four to five thousand breeding pairs live in the wild. It is difficult to estimate the number of chicks.

Where do tropicbirds live?

Tropicbirds live on certain islands and remote landmasses close to the Indian Ocean, Pacific Ocean, Caribbean Sea, and Atlantic Ocean.

These birds nest in isolated pairs or in small colonies where there is no disturbance. These shy bird species mostly stay on the sea and only spend their time on the land when mating, breeding, and nesting. The common resting and nesting areas of tropicbirds are rocky cliffs and difficult to reach landmasses where it’s difficult for land predators to approach.

These sea birds fly on long trips covering long stretches up to 75 mi (120.7 km) on the open oceans. Most of their time is spent feeding and looking for prey.

What is a tropicbird's habitat?

The ideal habitat of tropicbirds is in tropical oceans and islands around them. These species are found close to the shore on their nesting islands. When not breeding, most of their time is spent far away on the warm tropical oceans and seas.

The most preferred habitat for these birds is rocky cliffs out of the reach of the land predators. The nest sites on the coastal cliffs and crevices are mostly sheltered or covered with some vegetation.

The red-tailed tropicbirds breed on the islands of the Indian and Pacific Oceans that fall under the warm tropical and subtropical zones. Their distribution at sea ranges through the warm temperate seas.

There are some nesting sites in New Zealand too. Breeding grounds include the Kermadec Islands, Dayrell and South Chanter Islets, Raoul Island, North and South Meyer, Nugent, Macauley, and Curtis Islands. The red-tailed tropicbird's feeding ground is the wide-open ocean. They look for fish and other prey in the low-saline, nutrient-rich, cool waters.

Who do tropicbirds live with?

Tropicbirds like to live a solitary life when not breeding. During the breeding season, small groups come together to look for ideal nesting sites or breeding colonies.

How long do tropicbirds live?

The lifespan of different tropicbird species is from 10-30 years.

How do they reproduce?

Tropicbirds are not too social. Their nesting grounds are usually in remote islands away from any disturbance. These birds either breed in single pairs or small colonies. Breeding may be seasonal or may continue all through the year. The choice of nesting ground for tropicbirds depends a lot on the availability of suitable space.

In some tropical islands, the nesting season may continue all through the year. In the Bermuda islands, in the North Atlantic Ocean, the nesting season is during spring and summer. These monogamous birds have simple courtship displays that include a pair of twenty male and female birds flying harmoniously together with graceful movements. The males usually fly, swinging their tail streamers from side to side. The bird flying above arches its elongated tail feathers to touch the other bird’s tail, dives down, and calls. If the female likes the display of its tail feathers, she will mate with the male bird.

Occasionally disputes among male tropicbirds may occur while protecting the nesting site and their mates. Nesting sites are chosen on tree hollows, in crevices and edges of cliffs, rock-holes, or even on the ground under cover of dense vegetation. In case the birds cannot build a nest on time, they lay eggs on the bare ground. A tropicbird female lays only a single egg that looks white or grayish, brown-speckled. Both the parents take turns incubating the egg for about 40-46 days.

When the chick is, the female mostly guards the nest while the male searches for food and brings it back to the nest. The chick is fed only twice every day until it fledges in about three weeks. Tropicbird chicks have a slow growth rate compared to other birds. This happens due to the fat accumulation of chicks in these pelagic birds.  The usual nest-leaving custom includes the parents not visiting the nest after the young one fledges. Then the chicks leave to fend for themselves. The fledglings cannot fly right after it leaves the nest. Initially, the young birds float on the ocean water to shed some weight before flying. The chicks may take their first flight after 70 or 80 days.

What is their conservation status?

The conservation status of tropicbirds is of Least Concern according to the IUCN.

In the United States, tropicbirds can be mostly seen in Hawaii and islands of Dry Tortugas (in the Gulf of Mexico) Florida.

The white-tailed tropicbird, popularly known as the longtail, is the national bird of Bermuda. This bird enjoys complete protection. Conservation efforts like providing the bird species with 'longtail igloos’ have helped the population recover.

The number of tropicbirds, or ‘longtails,’ faced a steady decline in Bermuda as a result of coastline development, coastal erosion, and urbanization. Animals like rats, dogs, feral cats, crows prey on eggs and chicks at breeding and nesting sites. It also faced competition for nesting colonies with mourning doves and other pigeon species.

Tropicbirds Fun Facts

What do tropicbirds look like?

Tropicbirds make scraggy nests on cliffs and rocks.

All three tropicbird species share the common white plumage, species-specific black markings, and long tail feathers or tail streamers. However, the color of the tail streamers differs in the white-tailed tropicbirds and the red-tailed tropicbirds. The red-billed tropicbirds have elongated white, wedge-shaped tail feathers and a red bill.

Red-billed tropicbirds have distinguished tail feathers that are visible even when the birds are flying, making them recognizable in the sky. The red-billed tropicbirds have a black stripe on the curve of their eyes and diagonal black stripes across their upper wings. Their tail and under tail are white. The bills are red, reddish-orange, or yellow. The feet and thin legs are yellow with black web-like patterns. Wings are pointed shaped to allow strong and steady wing beats.

Tropicbirds remain at sea for very long hours, usually floating on the surface of the water. Their waterproof plumage is an adaptation that allows them to stay dry. When these birds want to take flight, they flap their wings and give a thrust with their webbed feet to take off.

How cute are they?

Tropicbirds are wild seabirds and cannot be called cute or cuddly. But these birds with white plumage and black markings, elongated red and yellow tails, and brightly colored bills look elegant.

How do they communicate?

Tropicbirds are loud. They have different calls that sound like a piercing, shrill, sharp, whistle-like note or a crackle. These birds are mentioned in old literature as ‘boatswain’ (bo'sun'/bosun) birds for their shrill, piercing calls.

Tropicbird calls are like a high scream that sounds like ‘keee-keee-krrrt-krrt-krrt.’

How big are tropicbirds?

Compared to a 3-4 in (7.6-10.6 cm) long hummingbird, a red-billed tropicbird is almost 10 times bigger. These birds measure 29-40 in (73.6-101.6 cm) in length.

How fast can tropicbirds fly?

Red-billed tropicbirds have been recorded to fly at the speed of 27 mph (43.4 kph). These birds generally cruise at the height of 100 ft (30.4 m) above the water. This species is not good at walking or standing on land and is more comfortable sitting on the surface of the sea or flying.

They require a clear takeoff without any obstructions when taking a flight from the land.

How much do tropicbirds weigh?

The white-tailed tropicbird is the smallest of the three species and weighs around 0.72 lb (0.33 kg). The largest species is the red-billed tropicbird weighing around 1.65 lb (0.75 kg). The red-tailed tropicbirds weigh about 1.3 lb (0.59 kg).

What are the male and female names of the species?

There are no specific names for male or female tropicbirds.

What would you call a baby tropicbird?

Baby tropicbirds are called chicks, nestlings, or fledglings.

What do they eat?

All species of tropicbirds feed mostly fish. The diet of these bird species inhabiting the tropical islands around the Indian Ocean, the Eastern Pacific, and the Western Pacific Oceans, the Galapagos islands are similar. Their food includes small squids, crustaceans, snails, small varieties of fish, and more. Tropicbirds are extremely fond of flying fish.

These birds can catch flying fish while they are flying. They have strong, direct flights like falcons and can dive into the sea directly like an arrow to catch fish and squids. These birds usually do not dive deep or for long and stay only till the surface level of the water.

Sometimes tropicbirds swoop down to catch their prey from the surface of the water even without striking the water, mostly to catch flying fish. However, most of the time, the tropicbirds catch their prey while hovering and keeping an eye on a catch rather than plunging into the water.  All the tropicbird species usually avoid feeding with flocks of different species that feed on similar sea creatures. This bird species feeds most actively during the early morning hours or late afternoon when it’s not extremely hot.

Are they friendly?

The red-tailed tropicbird, red-billed tropicbird, and white-tailed tropicbirds are all extremely land-shy. They mostly fly over the oceans, looking for food. They are not very social and get disturbed easily by noise or the presence of humans and animals.

Would they make a good pet?

Tropicbirds are free and wild seabirds. They are not ideal cage birds. All three species of tropicbirds thrive best in their natural habitat near the tropical islands in and around the Indian Ocean and the western and eastern Pacific Oceans.

Did you know...

White-tailed tropicbirds can eat up to 18% of their weight in a single day.

The red-tailed tropicbird, Phaethon rubricauda, is the rarest of the three tropicbirds. However, due to its stable population, this species is not considered threatened.

One of the interesting red-billed tropicbird facts is that these are the only tropicbird that can be rarely seen off the California coast.

The white-tailed tropicbird appears in 25 cents and two-dollar coins of Bermuda. These birds are considered a national symbol and are also featured on postage stamps.

Tropicbirds find a prominent place in several cultures around the world. The tropicbird Hawaii is called Koaʻe kea and is highly valued by artisans of the U.S State for making kahili (a noble feathered symbol).

These birds with long tail streamers were once considered prized in some Hawaiian and Maori cultures.

White-tailed tropicbirds feed on fish mostly and sometimes squid. They catch their prey by surface plunge but are poor swimmers.

Ancient Chamorro people of Mariana Islands called the white-tailed tropicbirds ‘utak’ or ‘itak.’ The popular belief was if a tropical bird flew over a house screaming, it meant the death of a family member or the pregnancy of an unmarried girl. It was also believed that if someone did not believe in a white-tailed tropic bird’s call, the person would die.

These birds were navigators and fish finders for the fisherman and helped them locate a school of fish.

How do tropicbirds hunt?

Tropicbirds hunt solo by flying over water. They spot their prey and dive straight to the surface of the water to catch the fish, squid, or other aquatic creatures.

What type of nests do tropicbirds make?

Tropicbirds cannot build pretty or neat nests. Their nests are commonly on the edges of cliffs, on rocks covered with some vegetation. These birds either build simple scrape nests, or when they cannot do that, the female lays a single egg on the ground.

Here at Kidadl, we have carefully created lots of interesting family-friendly animal facts for everyone to discover! Learn more about some other birds from our scarlet macaw facts and least tern facts pages.

You can even occupy yourself at home by coloring in one of our free printable Tropicbird coloring pages.

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