Tropicbirds are a family, Phaethontidae, of tropical pelagic seabirds. They are the sole living representatives of the order Phaethontiformes. For many years they were considered part of the Pelecaniformes, but genetics indicates they are most closely related to the Eurypygiformes. There are three species in one genus, Phaethon. The scientific names are derived from Ancient Greek phaethon, "sun".[2] They have predominantly white plumage with elongated tail feathers and small feeble legs and feet.

Temporal range: Early Eocene to present
Red-billed Tropicbird (Phaethon aethereus) (4089464789)
Red-billed tropicbird (Phaethon aethereus mesonauta)
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Clade: Eurypygimorphae
Order: Phaethontiformes
Sharpe, 1891
Family: Phaethontidae
Brandt, 1840
Genus: Phaethon
Linnaeus, 1758
  • Leptophaethon Mathews 1913
  • Lepturus Moehring 1752 nom rej.
  • Lepturus Brisson 1760
  • Scaeophaethon Mathews 1913
  • Phoenicurus Bonaparte 1855 non Forster 1817
  • Tropicophilus Stephens 1826

Taxonomy, systematics and evolution

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.

Microscopic analysis of eggshell structure by Konstantin Mikhailov in 1995 found that the eggshells of tropicbirds lacked the covering of thick microglobular material of other Pelecaniformes.[3] Jarvis, et al.'s 2014 paper "Whole-genome analyses resolve early branches in the tree of life of modern birds" aligns the tropicbirds most closely with the sunbittern and the kagu of the Eurypygiformes, with these two clades forming the sister group of the "core water birds", the Aequornithes, and the Metaves hypothesis abandoned.[4]

Tropicbird Seychelles
A white-tailed tropicbird in the Seychelles

Order Phaethontiformes[5][6]

  • FamilyProphaethontidae Harrison & Walker 1976
  • Family Phaethontidae Brandt 1840
    • Genus †Proplegadis Harrison & Walker 1971
      • Proplegadis fisheri Harrison & Walker 1971
    • Genus †Phaethusavis Bourdon, Amaghzaz & Bouya 2008
      • Phaethusavis pelagicus Bourdon, Amaghzaz & Bouya 2008
    • Genus †Heliadornis Olson 1985
      • H. ashbyi Olson 1985
      • H. minor Kessler 2009
      • H. paratethydicus Mlíkovský 1997
    • Genus Phaethon Linnaeus 1758

The red-billed tropicbird is basal within the genus. The split between the red-billed tropicbird and the other two tropicbirds is hypothesized to have taken place about six million years ago, with the split between the red-tailed and white-tailed tropicbird taking place about four million years ago.[7]

Phaethusavis and Heliadornis are prehistoric genera of tropicbirds described from fossils.

Extant Species

Image Scientific name Common Name Distribution
RED BILLED TROPIC BIRD P. aethereus Red-billed tropicbird Central Atlantic, East Pacific, Caribbean, and East Atlantic, Persian Gulf, Gulf of Aden, Red Sea
Red-tailed Tropicbird - Nosy Ve - Madagascar MG 1985 (15108469068) P. rubricauda Red-tailed tropicbird southern Indian, and western and central Pacific Oceans, from the African coast to Indonesia, the waters around the southern reaches of Japan, across to Chile
White-tailed Tropicbird - Phaeton lepturus 2 P. lepturus White-tailed tropicbird tropical Atlantic, western Pacific and Indian Oceans


Red tailed tropic bird
Red-tailed tropicbird at Midway Atoll

Tropicbirds range in size from 76 cm to 102 cm in length and 94 cm to 112 cm in wingspan. 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.[8]

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. In old literature they were referred to as boatswain (bo'sun'/bosun) birds due their loud whistling calls.[9]

Red-billed Tropicbird JCB
Red-billed tropicbird, Genovesa Island, Galapagos

Behaviour and ecology

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.[8] Tropicbirds tend to avoid multi-species feeding flocks, unlike the frigatebirds, 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 2–20 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 40–46 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 12–13 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 large amounts, but may be hard to find.


  1. ^ "Part 7- Vertebrates". Collection of genus-group names in a systematic arrangement. 2007. Retrieved 30 June 2017.
  2. ^ Jobling, James A (2010). The Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names. London: Christopher Helm. p. 301. ISBN 978-1-4081-2501-4.
  3. ^ Mikhailov, Konstantin E. (1995). "Eggshell structure in the shoebill and pelecaniform birds: comparison with hamerkop, herons, ibises and storks". Canadian Journal of Zoology. 73 (9): 1754–70. doi:10.1139/z95-207.
  4. ^ Jarvis, Erich D.; et al. (2014). "Whole-genome analyses resolve early branches in the tree of life of modern birds". Science. 346 (6215): 1320–1331. doi:10.1126/science.1253451. PMC 4405904. PMID 25504713.
  5. ^ Haaramo, Mikko (2007). "Pelecaniformes – Tropicbirds, pelicans, frigate birds, boobies, anhingas and cormorants". Mikko's Phylogeny Archive. Retrieved 30 December 2017.
  6. ^ "Taxonomic lists- Aves". Archived from the original on 11 January 2016. Retrieved 30 December 2015.
  7. ^ Kennedy, Martyn; Spencer, Hamish G (2004). "Phylogenies of the frigatebirds (Fregatidae) and tropicbirds (Phaethonidae), two divergent groups of the traditional order Pelecaniformes, inferred from mitochondrial DNA sequences". Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. 31 (1): 31–38. doi:10.1016/j.ympev.2003.07.007. ISSN 1055-7903.
  8. ^ a b Schreiber, E.A. (1991). Forshaw, Joseph (ed.). Encyclopaedia of Animals: Birds. London: Merehurst Press. p. 63. ISBN 978-1-85391-186-6.
  9. ^ Green, J.F. (1887). Ocean Birds. London: R.H. Porter. p. 52.


  • Boland, C. R. J.; Double, M. C.; Baker, G. B. (2004). "Assortative mating by tail streamer length in red-tailed tropicbirds Phaethon rubricauda breeding in the Coral Sea". Ibis. 146 (4): 687–690. doi:10.1111/j.1474-919x.2004.00310.x. (HTML abstract)
  • (2006): Red-billed Tropicbird. Retrieved 4-SEP-2006.
  • Spear, Larry B.; Ainley, David G. (2005). "At-sea behaviour and habitat use by tropicbirds in the eastern Pacific". Ibis. 147 (2): 391–407. doi:10.1111/j.1474-919x.2005.00418.x. (HTML abstract)

External links

Bermudian dollar

The Bermudian dollar (symbol: $; code: BMD; also abbreviated BD$; informally called the Bermuda dollar) is the official currency of the British Overseas Territory of Bermuda. It is subdivided into 100 cents. The Bermudian dollar is not normally traded outside Bermuda, and is pegged to the United States dollar at a one-to-one ratio. Both currencies circulate in Bermuda on an equal basis.

Coat of arms of Seychelles

The coat of arms of the Republic of Seychelles shows a shield, in which a giant tortoise is located on green grounds. On the ground there is a coco de mer palm tree. Behind it there is a blue sea with two islands and a sail ship to be seen. The shield is enthroned by a silver helmet, on which a white-tailed tropicbird is located above blue and white waves. The shield is supported by two white sailfish. Beneath the shield the motto of Seychelles is stated: "Finis Coronat Opus" (a phrase traditionally attributed to Ovid) (Latin for "The End Crowns the Work").

Eragrostis variabilis

Eragrostis variabilis is a species of grass known by the common names variable lovegrass, kawelu, emoloa, and kalamalo. It is endemic to Hawaii, where it occurs on all the main islands plus Kure Atoll, Midway Atoll, Pearl and Hermes Atoll, Lisianski Island, Laysan, and Nihoa.This species is a perennial grass which is variable in appearance. The smooth, erect stems are up to 3 feet tall or more. The leaves and inflorescences are variable in length. The panicles are open and spreading or dense and spike-shaped. Plants from the main islands look different from those growing on the other Hawaiian islands. There are about 3,136,000 seeds in a pound.This plant grows in several types of island habitat from dunes at sea level to ridges and cliffs at up to 3700 feet in elevation. It grows in areas that receive 40 to 100 inches of precipitation per year.On Laysan Island this plant provides the main nesting habitat for the rare Laysan finch (Telespiza cantans). The bird hides its nest in clumps of the grass. The grass also provides important nesting cover for the rare Laysan duck (Anas laysanensis). It is used by other bird species, such as the brown noddy (Anous stolidus), wedge-tailed shearwater (Puffinus pacificus), and red-tailed tropicbird (Phaethon rubricauda).This plant was used as thatching by Native Hawaiians. It is also used as an ornamental grass.This grass is displaced by the introduced weed sandbur (Cenchrus echinatus). This displacement reduces the amount of available nesting habitat for birds.


Eurypygimorphae is a clade of birds that contains the orders Phaethontiformes (tropicbirds) and Eurypygiformes (kagu and sunbittern) recovered by genome analysis The relationship was first identified in 2013 based on their nuclear genes. Historically these birds were placed at different parts of the tree, with tropicbirds in Pelecaniformes and the kagu and sunbittern in Gruiformes, though in the last decade various genetic analysis had found in the almost obsolete clade Metaves of uncertain placement within that group. Their sister taxon is possibly Aequornithes.

Fernando de Noronha Marine National Park

Fernando de Noronha Marine National Park (Portuguese: Parque Nacional Marinho de Fernando de Noronha) is a national park in the state of Pernambuco, Brazil.


Heliadornis is a genus of prehistoric seabirds related to modern tropicbirds, but native to temperate climates. They lived in the Miocene. Two species have been recognized. Heliadornis ashbyi is known from remains in Maryland in the United States and Antwerp province in Belgium. The latter were from the Brussels–Antwerp motorway between Berchem and Wilrijke. A second species, Heliadornis paratethydicus has been described from Upper Miocene strata in Vösendorf, Austria.

Kualoa Regional Park

Kualoa Regional Park is located at Kāneʻohe Bay, on the island of Oahu in the U.S. state of Hawaii. The park covers 153 acres (61.92 ha; 0.24 sq mi) across the road from the Pali-ku (cliffs) of the Koʻolau Range. The beach front is white sand and 1/3 mile offshore is the small basalt island of Mokoliʻi (or Chinaman's Hat).

The site is popular with watchers of wetland birds, such as the Japanese white-eye, Red-crested cardinal, White-rumped shama, Black-crowned night heron, Black-necked stilt, Nutmeg mannikin, Black noddy, Wedge-tailed shearwater, White-tailed tropicbird, Red-tailed tropicbird, Common myna, Common waxbill, Cattle egret and a variety of others.

List of birds of Niue

This is a list of the bird species recorded in Niue. The avifauna of Niue include a total of twenty-nine species, of which one has been introduced by humans and nine are rare or accidental. Two species are globally threatened. There are no endemic species surviving today but there are endemic subspecies of the Polynesian triller and Polynesian starling. There are 15 breeding species of which eleven are landbirds and four are seabirds. Studies of fossil birds suggest that Niue's avifauna was formerly more diverse. Birds recorded from subfossil remains predating Polynesian settlement of the island include the Niue night heron (Nycticorax kalavikai), Tongan megapode (Megapodius pritchardii) and the Niue rail (Gallirallus huiatua).This list's taxonomic treatment (designation and sequence of orders, families and species) and nomenclature (common and scientific names) follow the conventions of The Clements Checklist of Birds of the World, 6th edition. The family accounts at the beginning of each heading reflect this taxonomy, as do the species counts found in each family account. Introduced and accidental species are included in the total counts for Niue. There are unconfirmed reports of the red-tailed tropicbird (Phaethon rubricauda), Pacific black duck (Anas superciliosa) and sharp-tailed sandpiper (Calidris acuminata) but these are not included in the list.The following tags have been used to highlight several categories, but not all species fall into one of these categories. Those that do not are commonly occurring native species.

(A) Accidental - a species that rarely or accidentally occurs in Niue

(I) Introduced - a species introduced to Niue as a consequence, direct or indirect, of human actions

List of birds of North America (other orders)

The birds listed below are found in North America and belong to a taxonomic order outside of the scope of ordinarily encountered orders.

List of birds of Tristan da Cunha

This is a list of the bird species native to Tristan da Cunha. The avifauna of Tristan da Cunha include a total of eighty-eight species, of which twelve are endemic or breeding endemic, and one is extinct.

This list's taxonomic treatment (designation and sequence of orders, families and species) and nomenclature (common and scientific names) follow the conventions of The Clements Checklist of Birds of the World, 2018 edition.The following tags have been used to categorise some species:

(A) Accidental - a species that rarely or accidentally occurs in Tristan da Cunha

(E) Endemic - a species endemic to Tristan da Cunha

(Ex) Extinct - a species that no longer exists

Little Tobago

Little Tobago (or Bird of Paradise Island) is a small island off the northeastern coast of Tobago, and part of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago.

The island supports dry forest. It is an important breeding site for seabirds such as red-billed tropicbird, Audubon's shearwater, brown booby, brown noddy, sooty and bridled terns. A few pairs of white-tailed tropicbirds are also nesting here.

Little Tobago is also a good site from which to see birds which breed on neighbouring small islands, including red-footed booby and magnificent frigatebird. The latter species is frequently seen harassing the tropicbirds, boobies and terns.

A few species of reptiles have been recorded on Little Tobago. Among them are lizards such as Green Iguanas, Ameiva atrigularis, Rainbow whiptails, Antilles leaf-toed geckos, Turnip-tailed geckos, Ocellated geckos (Gonatodes ocellatus), Mole's geckos (Sphaerodactylus molei), Allen's bachias (Bachia heteropa alleni), and snakes including Boddaert's tropical racers (Mastigodryas boddaerti) and Oliver's parrot snakes (Leptophis coeruleodorsus).

Among the more conspicuous of the invertebrate fauna on the island are large terrestrial hermit crabs.

The sea between Tobago and Little Tobago is shallow, and glass-bottomed boats enable the attractive corals and brightly coloured tropical fish to be seen on the crossing. It is a popular area for snorkeling and diving, especially on Angel Reef in front of Goat Island.

Mariana fruit dove

The Mariana fruit dove (Ptilinopus roseicapilla), also known as mwee’mwe in the Carolinian language, totot on Guam or Paluman totut in Northern Marianas Islands, is a small, up to 24 cm long, green fruit dove native and endemic to Guam and the Northern Marianas Islands in the Pacific. It has a red forehead; greyish head, back and breast; and yellow belly patch and undertail coverts.

The female lays a single white egg. The chick and egg are tended to by both parents. Its diet consists mainly of fruits.

Culturally, the Mariana fruit dove is a very important symbol of the region. This species is the official bird of the Northern Marianas Islands.[1]. In 2005, the Mariana fruit dove was originally chosen as the official mascot of the 2006 Micronesian Games in Saipan.[2] However, the official website for the games shows a tropicbird as the official symbol instead of the Mariana fruit dove.[3]

The species faces extinction due to habitat loss throughout its range. A larger threat to the Mariana fruit dove has been the accidental introduction of the Brown tree snake to Guam during World War II. The snakes decimated the native bird populations of the island, which were unaccustomed to predators. They are extinct on Guam since 1984 and the Mariana fruit dove is highly endangered on other islands in its range. The spread of the snakes to the Northern Marianas Islands could be devastating. Several zoos have started captive breeding programs. The St. Louis Zoo, in St. Louis, Missouri, has one of the most successful captive breeding programs. The program began in 1993.[4]

Due to ongoing habitat loss, limited range, small population size and invasive alien species, the Mariana fruit dove is evaluated as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

North-east Saint Helena Important Bird Area

The North-east Saint Helena Important Bird Area is a 48 km2 tract of land covering about 39% of the island of Saint Helena, a British Overseas Territory in the South Atlantic Ocean. It has been identified by BirdLife International as an Important Bird Area (IBA) because it supports several colonies of breeding seabirds, including the red-billed tropicbird, as well as much of the remaining habitat of the endemic, and critically endangered, Saint Helena plover.

Ornithological Society of Polynesia

The Ornithological Society of Polynesia (French: Société d'Ornithologie de Polynésie), also known as Manu, a Polynesian word for “bird”, is an environmental non-governmental organization dedicated to the conservation of birds and their habitats in Polynesia. It was founded in July 1990 by bird enthusiasts in French Polynesia, for which it is the BirdLife International partner organisation. Its emblem is the red-tailed tropicbird.

Red-billed tropicbird

The red-billed tropicbird (Phaethon aethereus) is a tropicbird, one of three closely related species of seabird of tropical oceans. Superficially resembling a tern in appearance, it has mostly white plumage with some black markings on the wings and back, a black mask and, as its common name suggests, a red bill. Most adults have tail streamers that are about two times their body length, with those in males being generally longer than those in females. The red-billed tropicbird itself has three subspecies recognized, including the nominate. The subspecies mesonauta is distinguished from the nominate by the rosy tinge of its fresh plumage, and the subspecies indicus can be differentiated by its smaller size, more restricted mask, and more orange bill. This species ranges across the tropical Atlantic, eastern Pacific, and Indian Oceans. The nominate is found in the southern Atlantic Ocean, the subspecies indicus in the waters off of the Middle East and in the Indian Ocean, and the subspecies mesonauta in the eastern portions of both the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans and in the Caribbean. It was one of the many species described by Carl Linnaeus in his 1758 10th edition of Systema Naturae.

Nesting takes place in loose colonies, as they nest a scrape found on a cliff face that is easy to take off from. A single egg is laid and is incubated by both sexes for about six weeks. Whether the egg hatches or not can be influenced by pollution and weather, although the latter has a minimal effect on whether a chick fledges or not. After a chick fledges, the parents will usually stop visiting the nest and the chick will leave. Birds of all ages feed on fish and squid, catching them by diving from the air into the water. However, the red-billed tropicbird sometimes follows surface-feeding predators. The predators will drive the prey to the surface, which are then seized by the tropicbird.

In some areas, introduced black and brown rats raid nests for eggs and young. Cats also threaten the red-billed tropicbird. This bird is considered to be a least-concern species according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), though populations are thought to be declining. In some places, such as Brazil and Mexico, this bird is considered to be threatened.

Red-tailed tropicbird

The red-tailed tropicbird (Phaethon rubricauda) is a seabird native to tropical Indian and Pacific Oceans. One of three closely related species of tropicbird, it was described by Pieter Boddaert in 1783. Superficially resembling a tern in appearance, it has almost all-white plumage with a black mask and a red bill. The sexes have similar plumage. Adults have red tail streamers that are about twice their body length, which gives rise to its common name. There are four subspecies recognised, though there is evidence there is a clinal change with smaller birds in the north and larger in the south (and hence no grounds for any subspecies).

Nesting takes place in loose colonies on oceanic islands, the nest itself a scrape found on a cliff face, in a crevice, or a sandy beach. A single egg is laid, being incubated by both sexes for about six weeks. The red-tailed tropicbird eats fish, mainly flying fish, and squid, catching them by plunge-diving into the ocean. This bird is considered to be a least-concern species according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), though it is adversely affected by human contact. Rats and feral cats prey on eggs and young at nesting sites.

South-west Saint Helena Important Bird Area

The South-west Saint Helena Important Bird Area is a 45 km2 tract of land covering about 37% of the island of Saint Helena, a British Overseas Territory in the South Atlantic Ocean. It has been identified by BirdLife International as an Important Bird Area (IBA) because it supports several colonies of breeding seabirds, including the red-billed tropicbird, as well as habitat of the endemic, and critically endangered, Saint Helena plover.

The Handbook of Australian Sea-birds

The Handbook of Australian Sea-birds is a book published in 1971 by A.H. & A.W. Reed in Sydney. It was authored by Dominic Serventy, his brother Vincent Serventy, and John Warham. It is in octavo format (252 x 190 mm) and contains 264 pages bound in black buckram with a dustjacket illustrated with a photograph of a red-tailed tropicbird in flight. It contains numerous coloured and black-and-white photographs of seabirds, most of them taken by John Warham, as well as many sketches, maps and diagrams.

The stated aim of the authors is to enable seabirds found in Australian waters to be correctly identified and to record the known facts of their habits. Seabirds covered include the penguins, albatrosses and other petrels, tropicbirds, frigatebirds, gannets, cormorants, pelicans, skuas, gulls and terns, 104 species in all. With regard to the layout and content of the book the authors say:

”This book consists of two main parts. In the first we attempt a general account of Australia’s sea-bird fauna, its environment in the past and today, its distribution and the categories of birds found there. We also discuss some biological problems affecting those sea-birds, aspects of current research into their habits, and the problem of their conservation. The second part (Section V) of the book summarises what is known to date of the different species of birds in our region. Where there are adequate data each bird is described under the heads: Field Characteristics and General Habits; Status in Australia; Migration; Voice; Display; Breeding; Enemies and Mortality; Breeding Distribution.”

White-tailed tropicbird

The white-tailed tropicbird (Phaethon lepturus) is a tropicbird. It is the smallest of three closely related seabirds of the tropical oceans and smallest member of the order Phaethontiformes. It is found in the tropical Atlantic, western Pacific and Indian Oceans. It also breeds on some Caribbean islands, and a few pairs have started nesting recently on Little Tobago, joining the red-billed tropicbird colony. In addition to the tropical Atlantic, it nests as far north as Bermuda, where it is locally called a "longtail".

Tropicbirds (order: Phaethontiformes · family: Phaethontidae · genus: Phaethon)
Birds (class: Aves)
Fossil birds
Human interaction

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