If you are a gull or tern, flying home with a fish dinner for your chick, there is no worse sight than the villainous frigate bird coming your way.

Never mind that it’s gloriously known as the Magnificent Frigate bird, named for exquisite Spanish ships, it is also the unquestioned pirate of the sea. And now that our migrant birds have departed, they are one of our more interesting species.

Frigate birds are nearly worldwide in the warm waters of our Earth, floating effortlessly on air, over the seashores, always ready to catch or steal their next meal.

Their long, hooked bill stands ready to snag unsuspecting marine animals from the ocean’s surface or rip victims of other birds’ forays from their beak. Having a backup plan for food is a plus.

Many people know these huge hunters by their vernacular, the man-of-war bird, named for the special jellyfish-like creature with long tentacles and sting-like wasps.

Frigates are seen by deep sea fishermen frequently, but summer brings them to our shores — up high. They are often seen off the Bolivar Ferry or in West Bay where they sleep on posts, but often sit motionless above tall buildings, floating on updrafts.

An odd thing about frigate birds on the Upper Texas Coast is that they are non-breeding summer residents. All our other species of birds that summer here nest, but the frigates just hang out, soaring and feeding. In the early morning, before the winds and thermals begin, they stay fairly low. Later, they may be hundreds of yards up, or nearly out of sight. 

Another peculiar aspect of frigates is their plumage. Males are all black with a curious, red, inflatable throat pouch used for courting.

Females have a white chest, and immatures, which usually resemble their moms in most avian species, instead have a white head a Bald Eagle would respect.

Regardless of the sex and age, the most impressive aspect of frigates is their 8-foot wingspan, making those same Bald Eagles a bit insecure.

Like many seabirds, frigates nest in colonies in tropical regions such as the Galapagos. They move north in spring, reaching parts of the northern Gulf Coast by May. As the sun sinks southward, they follow it to the edge of the Southern Hemisphere’s warm waters, leaving our area usually in October.

This type of migration movement is practiced by many hundreds of bird species, plus some fish, whales, butterflies and others.

With all their apparent wickedness, frigates are important as natural agents of our planet’s selection scheme. Their duty includes culling out the weak, genetically inferior, sick and whatever calamity needs controlling.

This is not a job for unnatural predators such as humans, cats, dogs and pigs, as nature has worked out balances thousands of years before our Native-American friends arrived in the New World.

Jim Stevenson is the author of “Birds of Galveston.”

(2) comments

Gary Miller

There are a lot of what we called Bank swallows, or river swallows around.
About half the size of purple or bee martins. I think they belong to the fly catcher family.
Where is their colony?
Back in Oklahoma they had colonies with holes in river banks.

Sharon Kemp

I was lucky enough this past weekend to photograph a Frigate perched on a bannister at Pointe West on West Beach at San Luis Pass. I'd like to send you the photo(s).

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