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Magnificent Frigatebird Fregata magnificens


Six Frigatebirds soar togetherMagnifcent Frigatebird Chicks

At a glance

  • Distinctive flight silhouette
  • 6500-10,000 Pairs
  • 24 of 104 known sites are extirpated
  • Frigatebirds can neither walk nor swim
  • Colonies are extremely sensitive to disturbance
  • Very opportunistic; feeds on a wide variety of prey, discards from ships, and pirates
  • A species of conservation concern in the region

Index

Identification

Large [102 cm (40 inches) in length], graceful, highly aerial seabird with long forked tail streamers. In flight, tails not always held in forked position. Frigatebirds are mostly black in color. They often soar in place anywhere an updraft can be found. Plumages of males, females and immatures differ, but size and shape of frigates easily distinguishes them from other marine birds. This species is the only frigatebird that breeds or is expected to occur in the West Indies region.

Adults

Females have black bodies and heads with a white chest. Males are all black with a bright-red gular (throat) pouch that they inflate during sexual displays but which is sometimes difficult to see during foraging or gliding.

Juveniles


Juveniles have white heads and chests that gradually disappear as sub-adults molt into more adult plumages.

Likely locations

This species occurs in proximity to breeding sites and in seas that can be reached from land. Come to roost on land at night.

At and near breeding colonies and along coast. Often roost on undisturbed, vegetated offshore cays in large numbers. These roosts are not necessarily associated with breeding sites. Non-breeding individuals occur throughout the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico with large numbers along the Gulf Coast of Florida. Less frequent along the Atlantic coast of the southeastern United States. Attracted to ships and fishing boats discarding food items.

Alternative Common Names

Man-o-war Bird (English), Fregate superbe (Francais), Tijerata de Mar (Espagnol), Fragata magnifica (Espagnol),

Systematics

There are five species in the genus Fregata. Of the three that occur in the Atlantic, the Magnificent Frigatebird is slightly larger. The other two species (Ascencion Frigatebird and Lesser Frigatebird) breed only in the tropical south Atlantic. Records of vagrants of these smaller species into the North Atlantic are very rare.

Distribution

This is primarily a tropical Atlantic species, with a few populations in the Pacific off Central America and in the Galapagos Islands. In the Atlantic, this species occurs mostly in the West Indies region, but also breeds off Brazil and in the Cape Verde Islands. In the Western Atlantic occasionally wandering north along the Atlantic coast to the Carolinas. Displaced further northward and inland by storms. 

Between 6300 and 9700 pairs nest in the West Indies and Caribbean. They have been reported from 103 breeding sites, 24 of which are thought to be extirpated and many others have declined significantly. The biggest known colony has over 2000 pairs (20-30%) at Codrington Lagoon, Barbuda.

Distribution of Magnificent Frigatebirds

Biology

At Sea

Frigates soar high above the water, often groups; they feed by snatching food from the surface. They cannot land on water and resume flight. Roost on land at night, diurnal feeder and thus typically forage near coast. Males disperse further from nesting sites than females once young are fledged.

At Nesting Sites

Peak of laying and hatching period within Trade Wind season. Egg laying season protracted extending over six months with peaks within the general nesting period. Timing of egg laying varies from colony to colony within the region. Colonies are situated so that birds can land on their nest into the wind. Nests are constructed on the outer surface of the canopy or on the flat tops of low trees and shrubs. Will also construct nest on the ground. Nesting material is gathered by the male and is a flimsy platform of sticks and twigs. Nest constructed at the male’s display site. Single, white egg. Incubation 53-61 days, fledgling departs from nest at 150-185 days, but remains in vicinity of nest for 5-13 months and continues to be fed by adult female. These young often aggregate in large groups.

Often form large ‘colonies’ of roosting frigates in various plumages. While these groups do not represent nesting from a distance they can appear to be nesting colonies. People reporting new breeding sites should confirm the presence of nests, egg, or flightless chicks.

Current Population

Location Colonies Low Estimate High Estimate
Florida1100200
Bahamas10125161
Turks and Caicos4146260
Cuba91931113
Cayman Islands2261291
Jamaica9227391
Navassa12540
Haiti3020
Dominican Republic4435535
Puerto Rico5400500
US Virgin Islands200
British Virgin Islands2500500
Anguilla3115140
St. Kitts and Nevis21019
Antigua and Barbuda320352035
Montserrat12727
Guadeloupe49401190
Martinique3010
St. Lucia150100
St. Vincent and the Grenadines2010
Barbados1100100
Grenada3120
Trinidad and Tobago2108450
Venezuela14513652
Bonaire 1 0 0
Curacao 1 0 0
Colombia74490
Honduras1110
Belize3911090
Total 104 6447 9954


Conservation Status

Considered a "near threatened" species in the Caribbean (Schreiber and Lee 2000) with the majority of the total population nesting in four colonies. Approximately 25% of the colonies that were active in the 1900's are now extirpated, and many more cays that are named for the species are devoid of any birds.

A combination of anatomical and behavioral characteristics makes frigatebirds extremely vulnerable to disturbance at their breeding sites. Young that are disturbed and fall from their nest are unable to climb back into the supporting vegetation, are not fed by their parents, and eventually starve. This species has a very protracted nesting period followed by adult females returning to the breeding site to feed their young for 5 to 13 months. Thus the colony remains in use throughout the year and is vulnerable to disturbance at all seasons.

At one major West Indies nesting site visitations to the frigate colony were part of a tourist package for people vacationing on the island. In addition to direct human disturbance (poaching and unregulated visitation), feral goats are an issue at some sites. Woody vegetation used to support nests does not regenerate and the colony eventually ends up nesting directly on the ground where it is then further exposed exotic predators and being trampled by the goats. In Jamaica (Pedro Cays) feral dogs, cats and rats are an issue. In addition, habitation by local fishermen and probably poaching continues to be a problem at this site.

There is no indication that this is a by-catch species of commercial fisheries. No information available on effects of pollutant or effects of over fishing.

Conservation Needs

Because of the inaccessibility of most of their breeding sites in the West Indies, most of the detailed studies on this species have been conducted outside our region. A current inventory of known nesting sites is needed for this species, as many colonies have not been visited in recent decades.

Numerous colonies have been extirpated as a result of human exploitation, the introduction of feral animals, other human caused issues. Early in the 1900’s large numbers were slaughtered at their night roostsfor their fat.

Known colonies need protection from random visitation by boaters and tourist as well as the elimination of exotic mammalian species, particularly goats. Frigatebirds are in need of both legal and physical protection at breeding colonies and major roosting sites.

Eco-tourism to some sites may be appropriate if groups are accompanied by trained naturalists and board walks or well marked paths are established to keep visitors away from the colonies. Guides for eco-tourism groups can also have a role in patrolling the nesting cays. Signage at boat landing sites could help educate visitors of the issues, and regular patrols of the larger nesting colonies are needed. This species does not move nesting colonies when subjected to disturbance making it critical to protect current sites and allow them to expand.

Photos

Selected References

Diamond, A. W. and E. A. Schreiber. 2002. Magnificent Frigatebird (Fregata magnificens) In The Birds of North America, No. 601 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.) The Birds of North America, Inc. Philadelphia, PA.

Gochfeld, M, J. Burger, A. Haynes-Sutton, R. Van Halewyn and J. E. Saliva. 1994. Successful approaches to seabird protection in the West Indies. In D. N. Neddleship, J. Burger and M. Gochfeld (eds.). Seabirds on Islands: Threats, Case Studies and Action Plans. Birdlife International. Cambridge, UK. 318p.

Harrison, B. A., R. W. Schreiber, and G. E. Woolfenden. 1972. The distribution of male and female Magnificent Frigatebirds, Frigata magnificens, along the coast of Florida. American Birds 26:927-931.

Kepler, C. B. 1978. The breeding ecology of sea birds on Monito Island, Puerto Rico. Condor 80: 72-87.

Lindsey, K. L., B. Horwith, and E. A. Schreiber. 2000. Status of the Magnificent Frigatebird in the West Indies. In E. A. Schreiber and D. S. Lee (eds).

Schreiber, E. A. 1997. Barbuda Magnificent Frigatebird colony: status report and management recommendations. Report to Encore, Environmental and Coastal Resources Project, St. Lucia.

West Indian Breeding Seabird Atlas by Will Mackin and David Lee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on work at www.wicbirds.net. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at www.wicbirds.net.

Suggested Citation: Lee, D. S., W. A. Mackin. 2009. Magnificent Frigatebird. West Indian Breeding Seabird Atlas <http://www.wicbirds.net/mafr.html>. Last Updated: _____. Date accessed: ______.
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April 8, 2009
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