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Boobies are the comics in the cast of Galapagos seabirds. One of the strangest things about them is the name. Most people agree booby comes from the Spanish bobo meaning "clown" for its blue feet and peculiar antics during courtship. But the Spanish name today is piquero meaning "lance" for the sharp pointed bills.

Boobies occur in warm temperate oceans throughout the tropics. None of the booby species is endemic to the Galapagos, but they have exceptionally high populations — the world's biggest in the case of the red-footed booby.

It's easy to see why early sailors must have been amused by their antics. Their courtship displays are elaborate performances of calling, dancing and presenting. The reasons for the complicated courtship has not yet been worked out in detail, but it may be related to preventing species cross-breeding. Also boobies are astonishingly oblivious to human presence. You need to be within a couple of yards before they notice your presence. Even then, they carry out their lives as though you were not there.

Of the four species of boobies, three are native to the Galapagos. These seabirds are classified in the family Sulidae, related to gannets of northern temperate oceans, and share their typical feeding method — plunge-diving. On land they may be comical, but to see a flock of boobies diving en masse is one of life's great spectacles. They hover a while, waiting for the glint of a fish below the surface. Then with incredible power yet finesse, they drop from 50 feet or more, folding their wings close to the body and pierce the water. They often chase the fish underwater before catching it. To absorb the impact the booby skull has air sacs to lessen the shock — and they have many marvelous physical and behavioral characteristics superbly adapted to their lifestyle.

Boobies have an area of distensible (stretchy) skin at their throats below the bill. When the bird is hot it holds its bill open and flutters the skin of this so-called "gular pouch" and water on the inside evaporates, cooling it down. This is not a very effective cooling system and when the weather is especially hot, boobies are prone to overheating and death as a result. This problem is a particular hazard during breeding season, when the birds have to stay on the nest, without a break, or food — often for days. Lacking natural predators, the only other major threat is starvation, especially during El Niño events, when their favored prey — small sardine-like fish called salema — migrate away to avoid the warm waters. However, since humans introduced cats, dogs, rats and pigs, "unnatural" predators have become a significant danger. On islands where feral animals are common, boobies are not doing so well. However, on most islands, which are too small to have interested sailors and settlers, the boobies thrive to this day.

All the Sulidae breed in large colonies, so there is often stiff competition for nesting space. To avoid competing, each species differs in their courtship rituals, nesting habits and where they feed — read more about these differences and see the booby photos on the pages below.

Click below to see the photos and information on boobies:

blue-footed booby


masked booby

To learn more, check out the natural history information on each of the above species.

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booby photos

blue-footed booby photo
blue-footed booby

pair of masked boobies photo
masked booby

red-footed booby photo
red-footed booby

Back to Galapagos birds

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