Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
SAF Archives  search ask the scientists in the classroom cool science
on the islands

geography & geology



environmental threats

cyber field trip
for students
for teachers
web resources
galapagos homepage
Destination: Galapagos Islands Cyber Field Trip

Wildlife of the Islands: Birds

By clicking on the linked words, you can also learn more about some of the scientific terms used frequently throughout this site.

Blue-footed Booby
Sula nebouxi
Blue Footed BoobyThe blue-footed booby, which can be found on many islands in the Galapagos, is named for its blue-colored, webbed feet. Unlike other boobies, which nest in large colonies, the modern blue-footed booby is more solitary. Though the ancestors of these birds were nest-builders, the modern blue-footed booby has lost this convention in its isolated island habitat and now lays it eggs directly on the ground. Blue-footed boobies feed on fish found near the shoreline.

Dark-Rumped Petrel
Pterodroma phaeopygia
Found only on the Galapagos and Hawaiian Islands, the dark-rumped petrel is severely threatened by both humans, who compete for the same food, and introduced species that prey on these birds and their eggs. This medium-sized seabird has a wingspan of over three feet, a short, hooked bill and a white, wedge-shaped tail. Dark-rumped petrels mate for life and may be found nesting in the highlands of Floreana, San Cristobal, Santa Cruz and Santiago. They feed on squid, crustaceans and other fish.

Darwin's Finches
Ground finch photo courtesy of Michael Jackson. Copyright 1993.In all, there are 13 distinct species of finch found throughout the Galapagos Islands, with each species inhabiting its own niche. Charles Darwin's observations of the finches' different bill shapes and related eating habits helped lead to his revolutionary theories about natural selection. All of the Galapagos finches are relatively small and sparrow-like, though one species -- the woodpecker finch -- is believed to be "smarter" than the rest, because it has developed somewhat advanced tool-using capabilities. Using a twig held in its beak, this finch digs in the ground for insects and other foods.

Flightless Cormorant
Nannopterum harrisi
Flightless cormorant photo courtesy of Michael Jackson. Copyright 1993.The flightless cormorant, which inhabits the coasts of the Galapagos Islands, gradually lost functional wings because its environment contains abundant shoreline food sources and no natural predators. The cormorant's powerful legs and webbed feet propel this sea-going bird through the ocean in pursuit of fish and small octopuses. The flightless cormorant is about three feet in length and its wings are about one-third the size that would be required for a bird of its proportions to fly.

Galapagos Flamingo
Phoenicopterus ruber
Galapagos Flamingo photo courtesy of Michael Jackson. Copyright 1993.Stately and long-legged, Galapagos flamingoes reside in the salt-water lagoons hidden in the lava fields behind the coasts of the Galapagos Islands. Their pink color appears crimson and black when they take to flight. They lay their eggs in muddy nests that they build in the shallow waters of the lagoons. Their beaks have deep troughs with a unique filtering system that enables flamingoes to separate fish and other edibles from mouthfuls of water and mud.

Galapagos Hawk
Buteo galapagoensis
Galapagos hawk photo courtesy of Michael Jackson. Copyright 1993.The Galapagos hawk belongs to the same genus as many of the hawks found in the Americas, Europe and Asia, but because it evolved in the isolated Galapagos, it is far tamer than its relatives. Its plumage varies in color from white and brown to a brilliant yellow and black. The Galapagos hawk is the major native predator of most island lizards, including the marine and land iguanas and other reptiles.

Galapagos Penguin
Spheniscus mendiculus
Galapagos penguin photo courtesy of Michael Jackson. Copyright 1993.The cold Humboldt Current, sweeping up from the Antarctic, makes the Galapagos Islands habitable for the Galapagos penguin species. No other species of penguin can survive so close to the Equator. Like other penguin species, they are unable to fly, but they use their wings and feet to swim speedily underwater, where they catch fish to eat. The Galapagos penguins are seriously threatened when the waters are warmed even a few degrees by El Nino. The 1997-98 El Nino event resulted in a very poor breeding season for the Galapagos penguins.

Magnificent Frigate Bird
Fregata magnificens
Magnificant frigate photo courtesy of Michael Jackson. Copyright 1993.Frigate birds are a highly specialized pelican species with exceptionally long wings and a long forked tail to ensure plenty of control while in flight. At more than three feet in length, the frigate has relatively small legs and feet. Because it is unable to take off from flat ground, it requires a running downhill start to fly. Frigates forage the ocean for food and have been known to snatch flying fish in midair. During mating season, the pouch of the male frigate becomes conspicuously inflated and changes in color from orange to a distinctly brilliant shade of red.

Masked Booby
Sula dactylatra
Masked booby photo courtesy of Michael Jackson. Copyright 1993.The masked, or white, booby has a long, stout neck and a strong, cone-shaped bill. Its plumage is mostly white, but its beak and surrounding skin are dark and brightly colored. Like other boobies, its feet are fully webbed and it nests on the ground. The female masked booby typically lays two eggs at a time, which the male helps to incubate. However, only one chick is raised to maturity. Find out why by watching Voyage to the Galapagos on October 5, 1999, at 8 pm ET on PBS!

Red-footed Booby
Sula sula
Redfooted booby photo courtesy of Michael Jackson. Copyright 1993.The red-footed booby, with its reddish webbed feet, can be found throughout the Galapagos Islands. It builds a nest of twigs, sometimes in bushes and other times directly on the ground, and normally lays just one egg. Like the blue-footed booby, it also eats fish, but the two species do not compete for food, as the red-footed booby does its fishing far out at sea.

Waved Albatross
Diomedeidae irrorata
The waved albatross is a rare species of seabird about two to three feet in length. Albatross; photograph by Silvia SiegelThough it spends most of its time at sea, it has never evolved a method of reproducing there. Thus, it must return to land to nest -- namely, to Hood Island. The waved albatross is large and powerful, with a heavy beak, long wings and short legs. It will soar on the wind as many as several hundred miles away from its home island in search of food, primarily fish and other aquatic creatures.

Now that you know about the birds of the Galapagos Islands, find out more about the marine life and land-dwellers.

Scientific American Frontiers would like to thank Michael Jackson, author of Galapagos - A Natural History, for the use of his photos.


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
Sponsored by GTE Corporation,
now a part of Verizon Communications Inc.