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Red-footed Booby Sula sula sula


Red-footed Booby at its nest

At a glance

Pan-tropical

Smallest of the 3 Caribbean species of boobies

Nests in trees and often in large colonies

Several color morphs of adult plumaged birds

Population is steadily declining in the region

Index


Identification:

Though smaller (26-30 inches, 66-77 cm) it is the same general size as Brown booby. Has relatively longer tail than other boobies. Comes in several color morphs, white, brown, white-tailed brown, and white-tailed/white-headed. Typically several morphs nest in the same colony. The brown morph is the most common in our region. Because of adult plumage variation individual birds are easily confused with Brown or Masked boobies. Red feet and legs of adults are distinctive.

Adults

Sexes alike, no seasonal plumage variation. Females larger than males. Polymorphic, with different morphs often forming mixed pairs. Reach breeding age in 3-4 years. Live 20+ years, perhaps much longer.

Juveniles

Juvenile wholly brown with yellowish-grey legs and feet. In all color morphs streaked brownish at fledgling. Immatures also presents confusing plumage patterns when in transition to various adult color morphs.

Alternative names

French: Fou  pieds rouges

Spanish: Bubia pices rojos

Systematics

Smallest of the six species of boobies. Three subspecies recognized, nominate is found in Atlantic basin. Size differences main distinguishing feature, while color morph distribution is not generally influenced by subspecific designations or geography.

Likely locations

Deserted sparsely forested islands within general breeding range. Dispersed out to sea by day, birds do not necessarily roost on natal islands. Non-breeding individuals often roots in colonies of other seabird species.

Distribution

Of the three species in the region, this booby has the most restricted marine and breeding distribution in our region with both adults and immatures remaining in the proximity of nesting sites throughout the year. The Red-footed Booby is the least likely to occur as a vagrant and does not seem to often be displaced by hurricanes. Primarily in area of occurrence are its breeding islands adjacent to the Caribbean Sea, but also off Brazil at South Trinidade and Ferando de Noronha. Generally rare to absent from Gulf of Mexico, rare vagrant to Atlantic coast of Southeastern United States. Absent from Bermuda and known from only one small colony in the Bahamas.

Other subspecies occur in the tropical Pacific, and Indian Oceans and on islands in the seas north of Australia.


Distribution of Red-footed Boobies

Biology

At sea

They feed by plunge diving, feeding mostly on flying fish and squid. As in the other boobies because of their feeding behavior they would all seem to be a prime species for by-catch of the long line industry. Currently no reports, but this may be based on misidentification with gannets which are reported as by-catch species.  Largest eye of any booby; may be linked to partially nocturnal habits.

At the nest

This booby builds nests in trees and shrubs, but when they are not available (destruction of island plant communities by goats for example) they will nest on the ground. October to May is the general breeding season in the West Indies. Adult’s soft part breeding colors fade after onset of nesting. Nearly all birds return to natal islands to breed. One bird of pair remains with nest to prevent removal of nest material by other boobies and frigates. Circular stick nest. Single egg. Incubation 42-46 days, fledging 91-112 days. Young return to nest site for 1-4 months and continue to be fed by adults.

Current Population 

Atlantic population: 12,710 pairs although many islands have not been surveyed recently.

LocationColoniesBreeding Pairs
Bahamas23
Cayman Islands23824
Navassa1100
Puerto Rico42004
US Virgin Islands4137
British Virgin Islands11
Anguilla12
Redonda160
Guadeloupe120
St. Vincent and the Grenadines33002
Grenada3515
Trinidad and Tobago2414
Venezuela71315
Colombian Islands312
Honduras11
Belize11300
Mexico (Campeche Bank)13
Total3812713

Conservation Status

Atlantic population is of conservation concern, few nesting sites are protected, and loss of one or two of the currently key breeding sites would represent a large segment of the region’s population. Continuing to decline at most sites that have recently been resurveyed. This species needs to be monitored. The Little Cayman population protected as a Ramsar Site and the size of that colony is increasing. Had been reduced by fishermen to fewer than 100 pairs by 1990. Other populations have experienced similar declines.

Conservation Needs

Loss of nesting habitat, and disturbance at nests is a major concern. Feral goats and other introduced stock have destroyed vegetation on many nesting islands. Harvesting wood for charcoal and firewood is an issue for sites near inhabited islands. Vegetation removal caused secondary erosion issues.

Birds are tolerant of short term visits of small numbers of people to nesting islands.
 
Other than random inventory most research on this species has been conducted outside the region.

Major colonies need full protection, monitoring during nesting season, and enforcement.

Note: When censuring colonies from a distance be aware that the lighter colored morph are more conspicuous and tend to be over represented in final tally. Many birds are not perched in the crowns of the vegetation and may be difficult to detect. Check for nests as groups of tree roosting birds do not always signify breeding sites.

Photos     

Selected References

Bradley, P. E. 1996. Report from the Cayman Islands. El Pitirre. 9: 8-9.

Clapp, R. B. 1987. The status of the Red-footed Booby on Little Cayman Island. Atoll Research Bulletin 304.

Diamond, A. W. 1980. The Red-footed Booby colony on Little Cayman: size, structure, and significance. Atoll Research Bulletin 241: 165-170.

Schreiber, E. A. 2000. Status of Red-footed, Brown and Masked Boobies in the West Indies. Pages 46-57 in E. A. Schreiber and D. S. Lee (eds.). Status and Conservation of West Indian Seabirds. Society of Caribbean Ornithology, Special Publication Number 1. 225 pp.

Schreiber, E. A., R. W. Schreiber and G. A. Schenk 1996. Red-footed Booby (Sula sula). In A. Poole and F. Gill (eds.). The Birds of North America, Philadelphia, The Academy of Natural Sciences; Washington, D.C., The American Ornithologists’ Union No. 241.

Tunnell, J. W. and B. R. Chapman. 1988. First record of Red-footed Boobies nesting in the Gulf of Mexico. American Birds 43: 380-381.

Verner, J. 1961. Nesting activities of the Red-footed Booby. Wilson Bulletin 77: 229-234.

White, A. W., B. Hallett, and M. Bainton. 1995. Red-footed Boobies nest at White Cay, San Salvador. El Pitirre 8: 13.
West Indian Breeding Seabird Atlas by Will Mackin and David Lee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on work at www.wicbirds.net. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at www.wicbirds.net.

Suggested Citation: Lee, D. S., W. A. Mackin. 2009. Red-footed Booby. West Indian Breeding Seabird Atlas <http://www.wicbirds.net/rfbo.html>. Last Updated: _____. Date accessed: ______.
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