Two birds with turquoise feet
Bird Weekly,  Birds,  Galapagos Islands

Blue feet, red feet, any coloured feet …

There are several species indelibly linked in the mind with the Galápagos Islands, and one of these is certainly the blue-footed booby. The distinctive feet that give it its name, almost turquoise in colour, really are as bright and bizarre-looking as they seem in the photos!

These feet are used during courtship, the birds deliberately lifting their feet and showing them to their mates. The more turquoise the feet, the more attractive the male will be to the female. Their courtship ritual involves a peculiar dance in which the male lifts and shows off each foot alternately. The female will respond by mirroring the male’s movements. Both will clack their bills, whistle, grunt, and dance; until the female agrees to mate, or departs in the search of more vividly turquoise feet.

The rest of the bird however is somewhat drab: a mix of brown and white with a large greyish-blue bill. This bill is used very effectively in feeding; the booby plunges downwards into the sea at speeds of nearly 100 kph, using the bill like an arrow to pierce the water.

Male and female Blue-footed Boobies look alike; however the females tend to be a little larger, and their eyes have a little more pigmentation around them. The males have slightly lighter feet; I think that in my photo of a pair on Española (featured above), the male may be the one on the right, for this reason. They also sound different; males give a plaintive whistle whereas females and immature juveniles give a hoarse ‘quack’.

Blue-footed Boobies are not endemic to the Galápagos, despite being so intrinsically linked to them in numerous images; but over half of all breeding pairs nest here. They lay between one and three eggs, though two is usual. The eggs hatch a few days apart, and in seasons when food is scarce it isn’t uncommon for the older chick to kill its smaller and weaker sibling.

The islands where we saw Blue-footed Boobies in significant numbers were North Seymour and Española.

By the way, the odd (and in English rather suggestive) name is thought to have derived from the Spanish slang term bobo, meaning ‘stupid’. They got this name perhaps because of their clumsiness on land; or because these almost-tame birds had an unfortunate habit of landing on sailing ships where they were easily captured and eaten.

Red-footed Boobies

But Blue-footed Boobies are not the only booby species in the Galápagos. For some reason the Red-footed Boobies are less celebrated than their blue-footed cousins, but I personally can’t imagine why! Before coming to the islands I had seen numerous photos of Blue-footed Boobies and was looking forward to meeting them ‘in person’. But I had seen and read relatively little about the red-footed branch of the family; consequently I was surprised and delighted to find them even more appealing! The combination of bright blue bill, pretty pink and turquoise colouring around the eye, soft brown (usually) plumage and red feet is a winning one. I say ‘usually’ soft brown, because you will also see white Red-footed Boobies; but only 5% fall into this category, and both are the same species.

Unlike other web-footed animals, Red-footed Boobies can perch on branches, the same way birds with separate digits do. They therefore nest in trees rather than on the ground; on Genovesa we saw loads of them in the red mangrove trees that lined our trail. Many of them had soft fluffy white chicks. They seemed to be among the least fearful of all the birds we saw in the Galápagos, as gently curious about us as we were about them. I took so many photos as it seemed that in every tree there was a red-footed booby more engaging and even closer to me than in the previous one!

These boobies are the smallest of the three species found in the Galápagos, at about 70 cm. They raise just one chick at a time, and about 15 months apart. Because mating isn’t seasonal, there is always a good chance you will see young chicks, whatever time of year you visit the islands.

Nazca Boobies

My Blue- and Red-footed Boobies are perfect subject matter for Lisa’s Bird Weekly challenge focusing on ‘birds with a colour in their name’. But I can’t leave the Galápagos without also mentioning the third booby species found here, the Nazca Booby. Once thought to be a sub-species of masked booby, these are now recognised as a species in their own right, endemic to these islands. They are mostly white, with an orange bill and the mask-like black markings around it.

[look carefully at the lowest of my three photos above to spot the marine iguana basking on the cliffs in the middle distance]

Nazca Boobies lay two eggs, several days apart. If they both hatch, the older chick will push its sibling out of the nest area. The parent booby will not intervene and the younger chick will certainly die of thirst, hunger or cold. Scientists believe that the two eggs are laid so that one acts as a sort of insurance in case the other gets destroyed or eaten, or the first chick dies soon after hatching. This rather gruesome practice is known as obligate siblicide or ‘Cain and Abel syndrome’.

They nest at different times on different islands; for instance you will see eggs laid on Genovesa between August and November and on Española between November and February. This meant that visiting in November we were able to see all the different stages of their life-cycle. On Genovesa we saw lots of them: some had eggs; some a little or not so little chick; and a few pairs were in the early stages of courtship and building their nests. I have a short video taken there which shows a new born baby; and, if you look carefully, the egg holding his ill-fated sibling.

I visited the Galápagos in 2012

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