Beez Neez now Chy Whella
Big Bear and Pepe Millard
Fri 5 Nov 2010 23:37
 The Tropicbird
After a short downhill but slippery trek we saw this little chap sitting all alone looking out to sea from the cliff. He seemed unbothered at our closeness. Tropicbirds are a family, Phaethontidae, of tropical pelagic seabirds now classified in their own order Phaethontiformes. Their relationship to other living birds is unclear, and they appear to have no close relatives. There are three species in one genus, Phaethon. They have predominately white plumage with elongated tail feathers and small feeble legs and feet.



Size and Appearance: Tropicbirds range in size from 76 cm to 102 cm in length and 94 cm to 112 cm in wingspan (this may be my only attempt with these centimeter things - they really are not my thing). Their plumage is predominantly white, with elongated central tail feathers. The three species have different combinations of black markings on the face, back and wings. Their bills are large, powerful and slightly decurved. Their heads are large and their necks are short and thick. They have totipalmate feet (that is, all four toes are connected by a web). The legs of a tropicbird are located far back on their body, making walking impossible, so that they can only move on land by pushing themselves forward with their feet. The tropicbirds' call is typically a loud, piercing, shrill, but grating whistle or crackle. These are often given in a rapid series when they are in a display flight at the colony.



Systematics, Evolution and Distribution: Tropicbirds were traditionally grouped in the order Pelecaniformes, which contained the pelicans, cormorants and shags, darters, gannets and boobies and frigatebirds; in the Sibley-Ahlquist taxonomy, the Pelecaniformes were united with other groups into a large "Ciconiiformes". More recently this grouping has been found to be massively paraphyletic (missing closer relatives of its distantly related groups) and split again. Recent research suggests that the Pelecaniformes as traditionally defined are paraphyletic too. The tropicbirds and the related prehistoric family Prophaethontidae are considered a distinct order, Phaethontiformes, not closely related to any other living birds. They are more distantly related to the Procellariformes.


Family Phaethontidae: Genus Phaethon. Red-billed Tropicbird Phaethon aethereus (tropical Atlantic, eastern Pacific, and Indian oceans). Red-tailed Tropicbird, P. rubricauda (Indian Ocean and the western and central tropical Pacific). White-tailed Tropicbird, P. lepturus (widespread in tropical waters, except in the eastern Pacific). Within the group, the Red-tailed and White tailed are each other's closest relatives, with the red-billed a sister taxon of that group. Heliadornis is a prehistoric genus of tropicbirds described from fossils. 


Ecology and Feproduction: Tropicbirds frequently catch their prey by hovering and then plunge-diving, typically only into the surface-layer of the waters. They eat mostly fish, especially flying fish, and occasionally squid. Tropicbirds tend to avoid multi-species feeding flocks, unlike the frigate birds, which have similar diets. Tropicbirds are usually solitary or in pairs away from breeding colonies. There they engage in spectacular courtship displays. For several minutes, groups of two to twenty birds simultaneously and repeatedly fly around one another in large, vertical circles, while swinging the tail streamers from side to side. If the female likes the presentation, she will mate with the male in his prospective nest-site. Occasionally, disputes will occur between males trying to protect their mates and nesting areas. Tropicbirds generally nest in holes or crevices on the bare ground. The female lays one white egg, spotted brown, and incubates for forty to forty six days. The incubation is performed by both parents, but mostly the female, while the male brings food to feed the female. The chick hatches with grey down. It will stay alone in the nest while both parents search for food, and they will feed the chick twice every three days until fledging, about twelve to thirteen weeks after hatching. The young are not able to fly initially; they will float on the ocean for several days to lose weight before flight. Tropicbird chicks have slower growth than nearshore birds, and they tend to accumulate fat deposits while young. That, along with one-egg clutches, appears to be an adaptation to a pelagic lifestyle where food is often gathered in big amounts, but may be hard to find.