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Red-footer Booby

Scientific Name:
Sula sula Sulidae
Approx. 23 years but can live for more than 40 years
Adults always have red feet, but the color of the plumage varies. They are powerful and agile fliers, but they are clumsy in takeoffs and landings.
brown male booby

Watercolor Letters

By Richard J. King

Last June, the sailing school vessel Robert C. Seamans got underway from Honolulu, bound for Fiji in the South Pacific. The ship’s crew comprised college students, deckhands, oceanographers, two fish specialists, and one marine policy expert, as well as the ship’s regular professional crew, all embarking on an expedition to study oceanography as they crossed thousands of miles of open ocean. Rich King was onboard and sent us this report.

Australia and New Zealand

On the first day out of port, with the green mountains of Oahu still visible astern, a couple of seabirds alighted on our topsail yard. This seemed auspicious—a good luck charm. These were red-footed boobies, which we identified because of, well, their red feet. But it didn’t take long until many of the ship’s crew began to think of their arrival as less than a good omen.

Within a day or two, we had more than two dozen red-footed boobies hanging out on the yards and rigging, and on the furled jib on the bowsprit. Facing into the wind, the seabirds balanced on ropes or wire stays as they slept at night or preened their plumage during the day.

They were close enough for us to observe their beautiful teal and pink facial coloring and the range of white, grey, and brown plumages in adults and juveniles. It was spectacular to watch the boobies swoop off their perches and try to nab flying fish gliding across the waves.

At other times to catch fish, the boobies hovered over the water, tilting their heads to look down, and then quickly folded their wings to dive, plunging into the sea from several feet up.

The problem, however, was their guano (a.k.a. poop). The boobies spritzed day and night, bombing the lookouts and anyone else who happened to be on the foredeck. The guano stained almost everything on the bow: lines, deckhouses, bulkheads, laundry, life rings, the deck, and the people onboard. One crewmember got hit right after taking an outdoor shower. Another got splattered in her bunk by an impossibly angled shot that got below deck through a butterfly hatch. Soon people began shaking the rigging to try to get them to leave and came to resent the hours of extra scrubbing of the deck.

Bobby finds a restful spot on a boat

A red-footed booby making itself comfortable on the headrig of the sailing school vessel Robert C. Seamans in the Pacific.

Closely related to gannets and pelicans, there are six species of boobies. They do not roam the seas for months at a time like the albatross, but they tend to have a much larger range away from their home islands than other tropical seabirds, such as frigatebirds or terns. Due to their less-predictable foraging trips, boobies were not as useful to the traditional Polynesian navigators, who knew them as tākapu, a name found throughout many South Pacific languages. For centuries, boobies have been known to hitchhike aboard ships and even small boats as they crossed the
Pacific Ocean.

black and white photo

The English name “booby” perhaps comes from early mariners who considered them foolish and easily captured. In 1634, Sir T. Herbert wrote: “One of the Saylers espying a Bird fitly called a Booby, he mounted on the topmast and took her.

The quality of which Bird is to sit still, not valuing danger.” Harry Pidgeon, who sailed alone around the world twice in the 1920s and ’30s on a 34-foot boat he built himself, wrote about how two boobies lived on his boat for nearly a month as he sailed from Panama to Los Angeles. Just as we observed aboard our vessel, they came back to his boat each night to sleep.

He loved having them on board, gave them names and fed one of them flying fish by hand. He fancied that they warned him about sharks and did not seem to mind the extra cleanup.

bird over a mapStarting about a week after we left Hawaii, as we continued southwards toward the equator, the red-footed boobies began to thin out to about ten birds on board each day. One morning, around 0800, we watched two fly off quite deliberately toward the southeast—which was perhaps not coincidentally the direction of Palmyra, a known large red-footed booby rookery about 250 nautical miles away.

That same day we also noticed one of the boobies had a spiral of polypropylene fishing line around its left foot. Sympathy for this individual bird, as well as a few hard rain squalls that helped clean the deck, helped rebuild a little love for the remaining boobies on board. One crewmember even printed small badges with a dramatic print of a booby that said “Coexist.

Did You Know?

Seal With Plastic Bottle

Marine animals consume plastic when they confuse it for food.

Small plastics and floating objects often look like food to aquatic animals and sea birds. When they eat plastic, it often gets stuck in their digestive system, making them feel full and unable to eat proper food.

What can YOU do?
Learn more at Getting Rid of Marine Debris