The 7-foot wingspan of a magnificent frigatebird is unmistakable. They dwarf other birds as they glide on air currents above coastal Florida. Our state hosts the largest frigatebird species and the only nesting colony in the United States, located in the Dry Tortugas. Their summer breeding season brings the open-ocean species in to the shore where males can show off their distinctive red pouch to potential mates.
Frigatebirds rarely land on the ground due to their short legs and wing shape. Their thin “bent elbow” wings are ideal for soaring hundreds of miles without a single wing flap, but can’t generate enough lift to get the large birds off of the ground. They land and nest in high places, free diving off of them before catching the breeze and flying on.
It’s just as uncommon to find a frigatebird on the water. Their feathers lack oil that keep their seafaring neighbors like pelicans and gulls afloat. Water would quickly soak the frigate’s feathers and make it nearly impossible to escape.
While frigates are careful not to land in it, they skim the water for fish, squid, and other tasty treats near the surface. However, they get a significant amount of their nourishment from their bad table manners. Magnificent frigatebirds are some of the largest birds to grace our coast and they’re not afraid to throw their weight around. They will harass other birds until they drop their freshly-caught meal or regurgitate it if they’ve already started eating. Frigatebirds are so notorious for this feeding style, a Pacific species is known as “Iwa,” the Hawaiian word for “thief.”
While the magnificent frigatebirds nest primarily in the Caribbean and Gulf coast of Mexico, the air currents they soar on bring them up both coasts of Florida. Keep an eye to the sky on your next beach visit or your next Nature’s Academy STEM field trip for these airborne giants!