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The red-footed booby (Sula sula) is the smallest of the booby species and arguably the weirdest. Its bright lipstick-colored feet are attached to a body of rather dull white with pale brown wings. The feet serve a role in courtship, being waved in front of prospective mates — imagine someone with a pair of Elton John platform boots and you get the idea. The function of the blue bill is still being debated. The bill has small saw-toothed ridges along its inner length, presumably to help grasp its slippery prey: squid and fish. This bird has large eyes because it feeds at night, although it is active also during the day.

Why is the red-footed booby the smallest species in its family? Perhaps because it has to fly further than the others to get food. However, it is also the only booby species that nests in trees, and it would not be helpful to be too heavy while clambering among the branches — something at which they are not very skilled! Curiously, this species has two color phases, the normal brown phase and the rare white or pale phase. The pale phase is colored much like a masked booby, with whitish upper parts and coverts, but dark black primaries. If you see a "masked booby" in a tree, you know it's the pale phase red-footed booby. Also the red-foot is smaller and retains its bluish bill, and red feet. In practice, the white phases I observed tended to have orange or brownish feet compared to the brown phase pictured here.

Although it is the most numerous of the three Galapagos species most of the red-footed booby's time is spent over open ocean where it feeds so they are not seen very often. They are only seen near the coast when returning from or departing on feeding forays. The impression of scarcity disappears on Tower Island in the northeast of the Galapagos archipelago which is the species' main stronghold. Here is the world's largest colony of red-footed boobies — estimated around 100,000 pairs. The Galapagos population of red-footed boobies is considered to be an endemic subspecies (Sula sula websteri).

All the pictures on this page were taken on Tower Island

To learn more, see red-footed booby natural history information and Boobies—general information

Click below to see the photos and information on red-footed boobies:

perched in a tree

in a mangrove bush

booby chick


Photo of red-footed booby perched on branch

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The red-footed booby is one of the few species of seabirds that perches in vegetation—most others dwell on the ground. This behavior is probably not to avoid predators since there are none on most of the islands on which it breeds. More likely it is to avoid competition with the other booby species which being bigger would usually win disputes over nesting territory. This bird is on the branch of a palo santo tree on the trail above Prince Philip's Steps.

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Photo of red-footed booby in a mangrove bush

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The color of a fully mature red-footed booby is remarkable—among the most flamboyant seabirds. This one was sitting near a scruffy twig nest on a mangrove bush, not a promising place because the eggs would be exposed to direct sun and get too hot. Red-footed boobies prefer to nest in the shade of a tree (see below). This picture was taken on the trail that leads up from Darwin's Beach to the bay formed by Tower's sunken caldera.

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Photo of red-footed booby chick in a mangrove tree

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The chick of the red-footed booby might win first prize for Cutest Galapagos Animal. During their first few weeks of life they are just a furry ball—actually downy ball, because birds don't have fur. As the red-footed booby nests in trees it is the only member of its family to build a nest and this rather crude affair consists of a stack of twigs, usually well-hidden in vegetation. They like to nest in mangrove or palo santo, but will set up house in almost any available tree. The parents take turns to incubate the egg which takes 45 days to hatch. Until it fledges after 130 days, the chick spends its entire life in this nest. This picture was taken in a mangrove tree on Darwin's Beach.

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Learn about red-footed booby natural history

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