The Blue-footed Booby

Blue-footed Booby (Sula nebouxii) on North Seymour Island, Galapagos National Park, Ecuador | Don Mammoser

Blue-footed Booby is a funny name for a funny bird, or at least its behavior is funny. The Blue-footed Booby is a seabird usually found on rocky islands or shorelines. It was the birds’ lack of fear that earned them the name “Booby,” derived from the Spanish word for stupid or clown. However, the bird’s most distinctive feature is its bright blue feet; otherwise, it has a gray back, whitish head, and long beak, and it shows white on the belly and under the wings when flying. It is a fairly large bird at 32 inches in length, with a wingspan of 62 inches, and weighing between 3 and 4 pounds. During the nesting season the juveniles and females may be heard trumpeting or honking, and the male heard whistling. The scientific name of the Blue-footed Booby is Sula nebouxii, and there are other Boobies in the same genus that visit North America, mostly in Pacific waters, except that both Masked and Blue-footed Boobies may be found east along the Gulf of Mexico as far as Florida. There is also a Red-footed Booby, smaller than the Blue-footed, and either gray and light brown or almost white, and, of course, with bright red feet (1).

Couple of blue footed boobies performing mating dance | BlueOrange Studio

The most outstanding behavioral characteristic of Blue-footed Boobies is the complex communication between the nesting male and female, certainly adding to their clownish reputation. The male returning to the nest points his head and neck straight up, wings twisted forward, while the female parades by walking slowly, holding each blue foot up to maximize its visual impact. The seemingly humorous antics maintain the tight pair-bond between the two during mating, incubation, and caring for the young. The activity is repeated each time one of them returns from catching fish in the nearby ocean. The pair occupy a tiny nesting territory, surrounded by other pairs on every side, and kept at bay by threatening pecks of an outstretched beak (2).

Blue-footed Booby (Sula nebouxii) on North Seymour Island, Galapagos National Park, Ecuador | Don Mammoser

Blue-footed Boobies share the Galapagos Islands with some of the most unique fauna on earth. Darwin studied the unusual finches there in the first half of the nineteenth century, initiating the long-term interest in the Islands to biologists. Finches are the only terrestrial birds on the islands and have differentiated into many different niches or ways of life on the surprisingly barren islands in the tropics off the west coast of Ecuador in South America. Some of the finches, highly specialized with long, pointed beaks, have the most unusual habit of any bird. The finches actually peck at the base of Booby flight feathers until they bleed and then feed on the small amount of blood, reminiscent of the vampire bat of mainland South America (3).

Blue footed boobies on a rock, Isabela island, Ecuador | Alberto Loyo

The Boobies have a close relatives, the Gannets, that live much farther to the north, unlike the mostly tropical Boobies. Off the northern coast of Great Britain, the Gannets nest in huge colonies. Their fishing scheme is amazing. A bird may dive straight down into the water from soaring fifty feet in the air, hitting the water at tremendous speed. The birds have special cushioning in their heads to protect them from concussion. The dive forces them deep into the water where the fish are hiding, and they may catch several in one trip. The Gannets and Boobies have traditionally been placed in the same order as the Pelican, another master fisherman.

  1. National Audubon Society: The Sibley Guide to Birds, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, 2000 by David Allen Sibley
  2. Integrated Principles of Zoology, 12 ed., McGraw-Hill, Dubuque by Hickman, Roberts, Larson, and I’Anson, p. 762-768
  3. National Geographic, June 2017, “Life in the Balance,” pages 52-69 by Christopher Solomon