GREAT FRIGATEBIRD (Fregata minor) – ‘Iwa – Indigenous
DESCRIPTION: Great frigatebirds are, as their name implies, large seabirds with long, slender wings that give them a span of around seven feet (220 cm). They are easy to identify when soaring because they are predominantly black with a long, forked tail. The male has a bright red extensible ‘gular sac’, which it will inflate in courtship. (A gular sac is a throat pouch that can be used to store fish, for example with the pelican.) The bill is grey, and long and narrow with the upper mandible ending in a hook. The female has a white throat and breast. Its gular sac is not extensible. It also has a small red eye ring and a white patch under it. Great frigatebirds are more than three feet (about one meter) long.
NAME: The English name was given to the bird by seamen who observed that it was pursuing other birds to steal their fish catch. The Hawaiian name ‘Iwa means the same. The Latin genus name ‘Fregata’ also refers to the same. As for the species name ‘minor‘, it’s a ‘leftover’ from its former name, ‘Pelecanus minor’, attributed to this bird by Johann Friedrich Gmelin. But there is no such bird as Frigata major, although there is a ‘Lesser Frigatebird’, but its Latin name has nothing to do with the bird size. A little confusing!
HABITAT: Tropical and subtropical oceans, coastal areas and small islands.
DIET: It hunts for flying fish and others it can snatch at the surface only, because if it touches the water, it might not be able to take off. Occasionally, it will steal catch from other birds such as boobies (this is called ‘kleptoparasitism’).
NESTING: Great frigatebirds breed in colonies on small islands. They return to the same colonies but some individuals also migrate some distances to other colonies. Only one white egg is laid. Chicks are fed by their parents for more than a year, the longest of any bird species.
DISTRIBUTION: This bird is common in the tropical and subtropical seas around the world. The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are their northernmost breeding range. The Hawaiian population is estimated at around 10,000 birds.
CONSERVATION: Although not yet considered at risk thanks to its large range and still healthy population, the great frigatebird can still be impacted in some areas by loss of habitat and human disturbance. Predation of eggs by animals and humans can be an issue as well.
NOTES: The great frigatebird has the highest wing area to body mass ratio of any bird. Its aerodynamic shape allows it to soar effortlessly for long periods of time, even sleeping while flying! A good spot on Oahu to observe the great frigatebird is at Makapu’u Point, where the cliff creates favorable conditions thanks to ascending winds. As with many other seabirds that are built for flight, the great frigatebird is clumsy on the ground because of its short legs and small feet. Great frigatebirds have the habit of sunning their wings in their colonies.
SIMILAR SPECIES: Magnificent Frigatebird
Fact Sheet from Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources: Great-Frigatebird – Hawaii DNLR – Oct. 2005
These videos (not the best though) show a great frigatebird taking advantage of ascending currents off Makapu’u:
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