Magnificent frigatebird: Pirates of the sea and sky

Magnificent frigatebirds have been nicknamed the man 'o war birds because of their ruthless and pirate-like behaviour. Photo courtesy Richard Lakhan
Magnificent frigatebirds have been nicknamed the man 'o war birds because of their ruthless and pirate-like behaviour. Photo courtesy Richard Lakhan

When you hear the word pirate, it’s not unusual that the first thing that comes to mind is “a person on a ship who attacks other ships at sea in order to steal from them.”

But did you know that there’s a seabird found in TT that also fits this notorious description?

Biologist Shivam Mahadeo told Newsday Kids that the magnificent frigatebird
(Fregata magnificens) has been nicknamed the “man o’ war bird” because of its ruthless and pirate-like behaviour.

“Magnificent frigatebirds have a distinct behaviour in that they kind of bully or pirate other birds for food.

“So sometimes they’ll tug at the tail feathers of other birds in flight, who have been fishing whole day, to force them to regurgitate their food.

Magnificent frigatebirds soar in the sky above the ocean. Photo courtesy Richard Lakhan

“When these birds regurgitate their food, these frigates don’t even wait for it to fall to the ground…they eat it in the air.”

He said these birds have developed this behaviour because they can’t dive as deep as other seabirds and as such, can’t forage for food as widely.

Apart from their piracy, these birds prey on fish that are near to the sea’s surface and on turtle hatchlings.

Because they depend so much on the catch of other birds, magnificent frigatebirds perform the role of a scavenger in the ecosystem.

But they don’t only pirate food. Mahadeo said they also snatch twigs from other nesting seabirds.

“So imagine a seabird is carrying a twig, a frigate would come and bully a bird for its nesting materials. And if their nest building is going bad, they may even steal a fully furnished (nest) from another neighbour.”

“Unlike other seabirds that roost near the water or in flat areas, frigates tend to roost on top of treetops.

“Because of their wide wingspans and short legs, they tend to stay on treetops to make take-off easier.”

These birds lay their eggs between October and December and their chicks grow at extremely slow rates.

Mature males are black, have long wings, a forked tail and an inflatable gular sac, which is often used to attract mates.

Females and juvenile birds don’t have a gular sac and are white-chested.

Like other seabirds, magnificent frigatebirds are found near water. However, they are unique in that they spend most of their time airborne and can fly up to very high heights.


At times you may even find them “surfing” on jet streams in the upper atmosphere.

When flying, these birds can form the shape of a “W” which helps with their aerodynamics.

“They find hot pockets of air and they stay aloft flying ever so high. The birds themselves have smooth wingspans – which spans just over two metres – that helps them glide.

“They don’t tend to fly in large groups but you do tend to see them in large numbers where their colonies are.”

In recent studies on St Giles Island, which is located off the coast of northeast Tobago, researchers found a colony of over 8,000 of these birds.

“The island is relatively unstudied because it is difficult to access due to the choppy waters that surround it.

“Some of our passionate local birders often make the pilgrimage to go out to the island and see these birds because it’s almost a life-changing experience.”


"Magnificent frigatebird: Pirates of the sea and sky"

More in this section