Red-footed boobies are found throughout the tropical and subtropical regions of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans. They are one of three species of booby found in Galapagos and their name comes from the Spanish word ‘bobo’, meaning foolish or clown – referring to their clumsy movement on land.
They are the smallest of all booby species. They have distinctive red legs and feet, and a pale blue bill, but, unusually, they exist in several colour variations. The brown morph, most commonly seen in Galapagos, is predominantly brown with a white belly, rump and tail. The white morph is predominantly white with black on the flight feathers. The black-tailed white morph is similar, but with a black tail, and can easily be confused with the Nazca and masked boobies who also inhabit the Archipelago. Juveniles are usually brown or blackish-grey with a black bill and grey legs. Females and males look the same, but females are usually larger than males, though males can have a longer tail.
Red-footed boobies are strong flyers, and can travel up to 90 miles when foraging. They are well adapted for diving, with long bills, aerodynamic bodies and long wings which can be wrapped around the body before entering the water. They aim for fish that they spot from above the water, particularly flying fish, and will also dive at night for schooling squid.
They are a highly gregarious species, found in large breeding colonies generally between late January and September. Males attract females through a display called ‘skypointing’ where the male throws back his head until his bill is pointing directly upwards. Unlike other booby species, they build their nests on the top of shrubs or in small trees, with twigs and sticks collected by the male. They have longer toes than other boobies which allow them to grasp branches. They have a single egg which is incubated by both sexes for around 45 days. Chicks fledge at around three months old. They usually only lay an egg once every 15 months but this is offset by the fact that they can live for over 20 years.
Where to see them: Despite being numerous in Galapagos, red-footed boobies are less widespread than their cousins. They mainly nest on Genovesa and San Cristobal, though can occasionally be seen elsewhere in the Archipelago.
When to see them: They are easiest to see when nesting between late January and September.
Threats: Though currently listed as ‘Least Concern’ by the IUCN, they have suffered historic population declines in Galapagos. For example, in 1998, the El Niño had a dramatic impact on the population of the species by affecting the availability of food. They are also affected by invasive species which either predate on eggs and chicks, or affect the habitat that red-footed boobies require to nest.
Conservation actions: While there is no specific conservation work occurring on red-footed boobies, we are currently working with partners to determine the risks of marine plastic pollution to seabirds, including red-footed boobies, as part of our Plastic Pollution Free Galapagos programme.
You can help us to protect seabirds, including red-footed boobies, by donating to our Plastic Pollution Free Galapagos programme today!