The Three Extant Species Of Tropicbirds Living Today

A red-billed tropic bird in flight in Hawaii.
A red-billed tropic bird in flight in Hawaii.

Tropicbirds are tropical seabirds found in the tropical oceans of the world. These birds belong to the Phaethontidae family and Phaethontiformes order. There are only three extant species of tropicbirds living today and they belong to the genus Phaethon. These birds usually nest in colonies in the tropical islands and prey on fish and squids in the tropical oceans. Here is a description of the three species of tropicbirds:

3. Red-billed Tropicbird

Red-billed tropicbird.

The Phaethon aethereus has white plumage, red bill, black markings on back and wings, a long, white tail feather, and a black mask. There are three subspecies of this bird. The range of the bird spans the Indian, eastern Pacific, and tropical Atlantic Oceans. The birds primarily feed on fish and squids by diving into the water to catch the prey. Occasionally, they also follow other surface predators and catch prey that is driven to the surface by the tactics of the surface-feeding predator. The birds prefer to nest on cliff tops and both sexes incubate the eggs for about 6 weeks. The hatching of the eggs is adversely affected by environmental pollution. Predation of chicks by introduced animals like cats and rats also threaten the populations of the bird species.

2. Red-tailed Tropicbird

A red-tailed tropicbird.

The Phaethon rubricauda is a tropicbird species that build nests on tropical islands in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The bird has four subspecies. The bird closely resembles the other tropicbird species and has white plumage, bright red bill, a red tail feather, black feet, and black markings around the eye. These birds fly for long distances when not breeding and often birds ringed in Hawaii have landed up in the Philippines. Occasionally, when strong winds blow, these birds move inland away from their favored habitats. The red-tailed tropicbirds feed mainly on flying fish and squids and plunge-dive to catch their prey. They prefer to nest in coral atolls with low shrub cover where they build their nests below the shrubs.

1. White-tailed Tropicbird

A white-tailed tropicbird.

The Phaethon lepturus is the smallest of the three tropicbirds. The range of this species spreads across the Indian, Western Pacific, and tropical Atlantic Oceans. The birds have also been observed in the Caribbean region and are found as far north as Bermuda. The birds nest on the ground or cliff ledges in tropical islands and wander into the sea for long distances in search of food. Fish and squid constitute the majority of their diet. The birds surface-plunge to capture prey but do not dive deep as they are not efficient swimmers.

The adults of this tropicbird species are white in color and have a body length of about 71 to 80 cm. They have a long, white tail feather that is about twice as large as the body, black wing bars, black through the eyes, and an orange-red to an orange-yellow bill. There are six races of this bird.

The white-tailed tropicbird played an important role in the culture of the ancient Chamorro people. These people believed that if the bird screamed over a house, a person in the house would soon die. It might also mean that an unmarried girl has got pregnant.


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