Wait…What’s a Blue-Footed Booby?

Wild facts about the teal-toed seabirds of the Pacific

While all seabirds are beautiful in their own right, I personally don’t think any species out there compares to the unquestionable fabulousness of Sula nebouxii, or the blue-footed booby. Belonging to the order Suliformes, these creatures are cousins to pelicans, but have quite a few trademarks that make them fascinatingly unique and all the more lovable. Today, I’ll walk you through seven facts about the blue-footed booby that might just make them one of your new favorite marine species.

Their fabulous feet are striking, and with a purpose too!

Blue-footed boobies eat a whole lot of fish, and their diets are densely packed with something called carotenoid pigment. While there’s a lot that goes into the functionality of this pigmentation, the majority of this color ends up stored in the animal’s feet. Today, it’s thought that during the courting process, female boobies are more likely to select males who have more vibrant blue feet. This demonstrated density of color serves as a key marker of important partner considerations such as age, fitness and genetic health. With that said, it’s interesting that pigmentation isn’t the only thing that makes their feet unique. Since this species lacks the brooding pouch that many other seabird counterparts have, females instead keep their eggs warm by enveloping them under their webbed feet. Although the color of their feet has nothing to do with circulation and the warming process, the scene still makes for quite a fascinating visual.

There’s a story behind the second part of their name.

The term “booby” is actually an old English term, derived from the Spanish word “bobo.” The term translates to “stupid fellow,” and was often used to refer to people who seemed less than intelligent or silly. It’s thought that when early settlers from Europe first happened upon these birds, they were shocked at how clumsy and goofy they appeared to behave on land, and thus came the namesake “blue-footed booby.” The colonists clearly hadn’t seen the agility of these seabirds demonstrated at sea, which you’ll learn about later in this blog.

It’s “West Coast, Best Coast” for these seabirds.

Laura Gooch

Though they call the Pacific coast off Mexico’s Gulf of California and Peru home, approximately half of all blue-footed boobies in the world can be found in the Galapagos Islands. It’s calculated that of all breeding pairs worldwide, about half of them can be found around the Galapagos. It’s worth noting that these birds don’t spend a whole lot of time on land. In fact, like many seabirds, most of the time they do spend not at sea is for the dedicated purposes of sleeping, mating or caring for hatchlings.

Female blue-footed boobies are loud and proud.

It can sometimes be difficult to tell the difference between male and female boobies, but one significant way to tell them apart is actually not to look, but to listen. While males are known to whistle a bit more softly, females are typically much louder, honking unabashedly during communication. There are, of course, a couple of ways to tell them apart visually as well. While not hugely variable, males tend to be smaller with a yellowish tint to the iris of their eyes, while females lean toward the bigger side and have pupils just a tad bit larger. Females also usually have deeper pigmentation to their feet than males, but this coloration is also reflective of age—younger birds tend to have darker feet than older counterparts.

These birds are professional dive-bombers.

While these birds aren’t particularly huge in size, their athletic abilities are enormous. Only weighing an average of about three pounds with a wingspan around five feet, blue-footed boobies are exceptionally talented divers. Since their diet consists solely of fish, they’re professionals when it comes to hunting efficiently. When a booby is in search of prey, they’ll soar above the water at altitudes typically up to 80 feet, searching carefully for unsuspecting fish below.

Anita Ritenour
Once their targets have been spotted, their jaw-dropping athletic performance begins. If they’re hunting with their cohorts, they will whistle to signal to the group that food has been spotted. Nose-diving with their wings tucked around them, these seabirds hit the water at an incredible 60 miles per hour and are able to plunge to undersea depths nearly equal to their sky-soaring heights. Special adaptations allow blue-footed boobies to barely be phased by the impact they experience during hunts: they have protective sacs around their skulls, which are filled with air to serve as a cushion for their birdy-brains when engaging in their ritualistic searches for food. Their nostrils are also completely sealed when they hit the water, so between that and their streamlined anatomical form, a dive is just another part of the routine for these creatures.

They are renowned for their elaborate mating rituals.

nora lewis blue footed booby

The courtship process for blue-footed boobies is wildly entertaining to watch. Here’s how the “dating” process typically goes. When a male finds a female that he’s interested in pursuing, he’ll waddle on over with a gift, such as a rock, small stick or branch. After gaining her attention, he’ll begin an intricate dance for her, ducking and whistling while spreading his wings and showing off the thing he’s most proud of: his fabulous blue feet. What might be the cutest fact about the mating ritual is that females and males engage in their own form of “kissing” during courtship, touching their beaks together affectionately. Cute, right? It’s even been said that once a couple is established, they can recognize each other by their specific mating calls—a result of forming such a close bond with their significant other.

Blue-footed booby families are pretty tight-knit.

Max Ruckman

Once a mating pair has been established, it’s said that these two often stay together for life (or at least through the rest of the mating season). Additionally, mother boobies hatch an average of two babies a season, caring for them closely for approximately two months. Both mother and father boobies participate in caring for the little ones, with one often keeping watch for predators while the other feeds their offspring.

Well, what did I tell you? There’s no bird out there quite like the blue-footed booby. Are you ready to learn more about other seabirds that call our ocean and coastlines home? From brown pelicans and plovers to puffins and penguins, you can learn more about the winged creatures that call marine ecosystems home by staying up-to-date with our blog and visiting our wildlife fact sheets. You can also subscribe to the Ocean Conservancy email list below for ocean updates delivered straight to your inbox. Happy learning, ocean lovers!

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