Red-billed Tropicbird: This slender, white, gull-like seabird is the largest tropic bird. It has long white tail streamers, a white back that is finely barred in black, a black eye stripe curves that upward behind the eye, black primaries, and a red bill. Female resembles the male but is less tinged with red. Feeds on fish and squid. Direct, rapid flight; pigeon like, stiff, shallow wing beats.
Range and Habitat
Red-billed Tropicbird: Found in warm open ocean waters, often far from shore. Breeds on remote coastal islands or occasionally coastal mainland of Pacific Mexico and Caribbean. Occasional visitor off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of Florida and California. Rare to Gulf Coast, one record for Arizona.
The order PELECANIFORMES (pronounced pel-leh-KAN-ih-FOR-meez) is composed of six families including the comical, large-billed pelicans, the pterodactyl-like frigatebirds, the gannets and boobies, and the graceful tropicbirds.
The tropicbird family, Phaethontidae (pronounced fee-TON-tih-dee), is a small family of just three species in one genus that occur in tropical and subtropical waters of the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans.
All three species of tropicbird, the Red-tailed, White-tailed and Red-billed, have occurred in North American waters.
Tropicbirds are known for their ability to suddenly appear and hover overhead during pelagic birding trips despite several people watching for them at all times. They are also known for being very graceful in flight and having elongated central tail feathers.
Tropicbirds are fairly large with long, pointed wings, short necks, and wedge-shaped tails with elongated, central tail feathers. They have medium-length, strong, sharp bills somewhat like that of a tern (an unrelated group of birds). Also like terns, they have short legs with webbed feet for paddling in the water.
Tropicbirds have predominately white plumage with black markings in the wings, on the face, and in the case of the Red-billed Tropicbird, also on the tail and back. Black markings on the back are also found on young of other species. Bills of tropicbirds are colored a deep red in Red-billed and Red-tailed Tropicbirds (which also has a red central tail feathers) and bright yellow in the White-tailed Tropicbird.
Tropicbirds nest on rocky islets and cliffs but mostly frequent warm seas far from land. Away from breeding grounds in Hawaii and Bermuda, tropicbirds are seldom seen. While the White-tailed Tropicbird is rarely but regularly encountered in the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, the other two species are only casually seen in North American waters.
Tropicbirds are non-migratory but disperse widely after breeding.
Away from their nesting colonies, tropicbirds are solitary birds that dive for fish and squid on the open ocean. They often take advantage of small fish driven to the surface by tuna and other predators; each tropicbird species being adapted to foraging with different types of predatory fish.
Although the Red-billed and Red-tailed Tropicbirds have fairly small populations, neither these species nor the White-tailed are threatened. With so many seabird species threatened by pollution, long-line fishing and disturbance at their breeding grounds, this is a positive and welcome anomaly.
Before breeding, tropicbirds perform beautiful, aerial courtship displays that can involve wagging their tails back and forth as they fly backwards and in circles. On their breeding grounds in Bermuda, the White-tailed Tropicbird is a welcome sight. Considered a sign of spring, “nest igloos” are put up to help with the nesting of the “longtail,” Bermuda’s national bird.