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Great Frigate Bird, or Man of War Bird

Fregata minor
Online Sources Published Sources Gallery
The Great Frigate bird spends much of its life soaring on the air currents of the Pacific, often at great distances from land. It grows to between 86 and 100 centimetres in length and has a distinctive deeply forked tail and long slender wings spanning up to 230 centimetres.

Both the male and female of the species have iridescent black plumage with brown bands on the wings and the back of the neck. They also both have blue-black bills and red or brown legs. Where the sexes differ markedly is in the male having a striking inflatable red throat pouch. The female has a no pouch and a white throat, breast and sides.

The male inflates the throat pouch as part of a breeding display that also involves spreading his wings and vigorous head shaking.

The Great Frigate is found throughout the tropical waters of the Pacific between Pitcairn and the Galapagos Islands, and breeds on the Tuamotu Archipelago and numerous other islands in the central and southern Pacific. It builds a platform nest on the top of trees or shrubs laying a single egg. Because chicks are raised over a period of eighteen months, the male often leaves the nesting site after the chick is hatched and secures a new mate every year.

Great Frigates usually feed in pairs or small groups with one bird swooping over a school of small fish, causing them to scatter and be caught by the others. They also harass shearwaters and other sea birds into dropping their prey and then swooping to catch it before it hits the water. It was probably by virtue of this behaviour and its relative size that mariners were inspired to call the Great Frigate the “Man of War Bird”.

In the Society Islands and other Polynesian societies, the presence of Great Frigates circling above other seabirds was taken as a sign of good fishing. However, it was also taken as a sign of the approach of bad weather (Nordhoff 1930b: 249-250).

At the time of first encounter with Europeans, Maohi put frigate bird feathers to various ritual uses believing they were pleasing to gods and spirits. In his account of his time with Maohi, James Morrison, the Bounty Mutineer, recorded the use of red and black feathers in time of war by tahu’a atua, who were individuals prone to spirit-possession and served as oracles. His observations suggest moreover that the Great Frigate may have been regarded as a bodily form assumed by the war god Oro.

Morrison claims that feathers from one Great Frigate were readily exchanged for a pig weighing a hundred pounds. He also provides a fascinating account of how the birds were hunted.

Online Sources Published Sources
  • James Morrison, Account of the Island of Tahiti & of the Customs of the Island, 1792. Derived from the Golden Cockerel Press edition of Morrison's Journal published in London in 1935, edited by Owen Rutter., South Seas, 2004, http://southseas.nla.gov.au/index_indigenous.html. [ Details ]

Created: 24 March 2004

Published by South Seas, 1 February 2004
Comments, questions, corrections and additions: Paul.Turnbull@jcu.edu.au
Prepared by: Paul Turnbull
Updated: 28 June 2004
To cite this page use: http://nla.gov.au/nla.cs-ss-biogs-P000400

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