Gary Guinn

Literature of the Ozarks

Frigate Birds on Caye Caulker

Okay, I don’t know what it is exactly about the frigate birds that fascinates me, but I am soooo fascinated I watch them all the time. They are a constant presence in the sky above Caye Caulker, their striking dark outline soaring in the wind currents coming off the ocean. With their long beak and even longer tail, and the largest wing area to body weight ratio of any bird, they beguile me every time I look up.

The three birds that are abundant at the beach here are seagulls, pelicans, and frigate birds. I love watching them all. I may have to write a post about the pelicans next. But the frigate birds, just mysterious and alluring.

On our first visit to the island last year, a friendly islander with a big smile and a wealth of stories told us all about the “frigid bird” who stayed up in the air for many days without landing, ate only what it could steal from other birds’ nests, and whenever it did not eat for a day committed suicide by diving onto the tops of buildings or into the mangrove trees. It was a wonderful story–and mostly true.

The frigate bird can indeed stay aloft for weeks at a time, soaring. In fact, one frigate bird, tracked by satellite, stayed in the air for two months. Two months without landing. Their wingspan can reach seven-and-a-half feet. They aren’t at their best when flying by flapping their wings, they can’t walk well on their small weak legs, and they struggle to take off from the water. But gliding over the island, still and dark, rarely flapping , they seem magnificent.

And they are known as kleptoparasites because they occasionally steal food from other birds or even snatch seabird chicks out of nests. But they mostly eat fish and squid that are chased to the surface by larger predators like tuna.

The best part of our islander friend’s story, that the frigate bird commits suicide if it misses its daily meals, though not factual, simply shows how completely the bird grips the imagination. When the male is trying to attract a female, the he leans his head all the way back and throws out his huge red throat pouch. Who could resist that?

They are hypnotic. And there are a lot of them. So we are often hypnotized. And we can’t escape the feeling that it is they who are watching us, not the other way around.

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1 Comment

  1. Thanks for sharing, Gary. I was so fascinated by your description that I had to find a picture of them. Wow!

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