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The Verge review of animals: the frigatebird

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Photo by Wild Horizons/UIG via Getty Images

This column is part of a series where Verge staffers post highly subjective reviews of animals. Up until now, we've written about animals without telling you whether they suck or rule. We are now rectifying this oversight.

These cloud-riding birds can fly for months at a time, at over 13,000 feet, without stopping to rest and catch their breath. Frigatebirds are badasses of the sky.

The tropical bird that can make trans-Atlantic flightsThey don't look incredible: from afar frigatebirds are black and gray with white patches and long, hooked beaks; though close up their feathers are iridescent dark greens and blues. During courtship the males protrude a red balloon-like pouch on their necks to attract females — looking astounding. Here in the United States you might see the frigatebird in Florida and the Gulf region, and abroad they can be seen in the warmer climates of the Pacific region and in coastal areas of the Americas.

Photo by Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

What's special about these tropical birds is that they're able to make trans-Atlantic flights. With one of the largest known wingspans (at about six feet) and relatively small bodies, these birds are made for gliding. One study, published in Science, found that the frigatebirds traveled up to altitudes of 13,000 feet —  almost 2.5 miles high. Some birds also stayed in the air for longer than two months, covering an average of 255 miles each day, without breaks, according to the study in Science. (For that study, researchers equipped frigatebirds with GPS and various transmitting systems.) Even the researchers were amazed. "It is impressive," one of the researchers, ornithologist Henri Weimerskirch, told The Washington Post. "There is no other bird species like them."

These birds are efficient fliers. Frigatebirds are so adept at soaring and taking advantage of wind patterns and they can take short cat-naps while in flight. As a New York City commuter, I can appreciate a little shut-eye while en route.

Frigatebirds, hunting flying fish. (BBC)

Though they do spend time in the clouds, their main food source is fish. However, unlike any other seabird, frigatebirds lack waterproof feathers, so they can't dive into the ocean or land on its surface to catch their prey. (The water would soak their feathers so they wouldn't be able to take off again.) Their solution? Thievery. These Hamburglers of the sky will take food out of the mouths of other birds, in a technique Audubon called "feeding by piracy." If there is no one around to steal lunch from they catch fish jumping out of the water.

A female frigatebird is in the process of regurgitating a sardine for her chick... when a male comes by and swipes it. (Anita Gray).

They're also remarkably egalitarian when it comes to child care responsibilities: males and females take equal time caring for the nest, until the male leaves the rest of the child rearing to the female when chicks are 12 weeks old, according to Audubon. There is a dark side to their childrearing — these birds have to watch the nest constantly for fear of other frigatebirds stealing their eggs for lunch.

This new research shows how much there is still to learn about animals — there is a great deal we don't know. How amazing is that? I will be keeping my eyes out for frigatebirds the next time I am in a tropical coastal area — or sitting in a plane, looking out at the clouds.

The Frigatebird

Verge Score: 8.0

8.0

Verge Score

Good Stuff

  • Amazing athletes

  • Skilled in cloud-surfing

  • Huge wingspan

Bad Stuff

  • Snack stealers

  • Will eat other frigatebirds' eggs