• Welcome to BirdForum, the internet's largest birding community with thousands of members from all over the world. The forums are dedicated to wild birds, birding, binoculars and equipment and all that goes with it.

    Please register for an account to take part in the discussions in the forum, post your pictures in the gallery and more.
ZEISS DTI thermal imaging cameras. For more discoveries at night, and during the day.

Red-billed Tropicbird - BirdForum Opus

Alternative name: Boatswain Bird

Photo © by Miami
Fuerteventura, Canary Islands Spain, May 2018

Includes: Arabian Tropicbird / Lesser Red-billed Tropicbird

Phaethon aethereus


90–107 cm (35½-42 in), including tail streamers
Ws. 1m

Photo © by Momo
Isla Española, Galapagos, Ecuador, December 2008
  • central tail feathers white, very long: can give bird total length of 96 cm
  • upperside primary coverts and leading vanes of outer primaries black—giving a more or less solid black wedge at leading edge of wing
  • rest of flight feathers white or with a pronounced black bar on the secondary coverts (indicus)
  • back, mantle and lesser coverts with fine black or dark grey vermiculations on a white background
  • eye patch black and usually pronounced (reduced in indicus). Tends to extend oliquely upwards behind the eye
  • bill red, or ranging from pinky-orange to red (indicus)

Sexes are similar; males average longer-tailed


  • tail streamers lacking
  • back greyer
  • bill yellow

Similar species

White-tailed Tropicbird and Red-tailed Tropicbird. White-tailed Tropicbird has white primary coverts on upperside and black eye line tends to turn down, not up.


Notice black primary coverts and the eye-line that tends to meet at rear crown
Photo © by bionicsherpa
South Plaza, Galapagos, Ecuador, March 2009

Found in tropical waters of the Atlantic Ocean, the north-west Indian Ocean and the eastern Pacific.

They breed in the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador, off the Pacific coast of Mexico, in the Caribbean, the Canary Islands, Spain, on islands in the southern Atlantic, and the Yemen, Oman and Saudi Arabian coasts.


Subspecies indicus may be split as "Arabian Tropicbird" or "Lesser Red-billed Tropicbird", P. indicus based on plumage and vocal differences.


Photo © by kitefarrago
Gorda banks, off Baja California, April 2012

Clements recognises the following subspecies [1]:

  • P. a. mesonauta: Subtropical and tropical eastern Pacific, Caribbean and eastern Atlantic
  • P. a. aethereus: Fernando de Noronha, Ascension Island and St Helena (south Atlantic)
  • P. a. indicus: "Arabian Tropicbird". Red Sea, Persian Gulf and Gulf of Aden. [The shortest tail of any tropicbird, rarely as long as the body. Bill often pinkish or orangy with black cutting edges. Secondary coverts with (second) black bar. Black eye patch generally much reduced. Back vermiculations heavy, pronounced.]


Tropical islands, coastal cliffs and maritime.



Reported to not be a good swimmer.


They breed on tropical islands, laying a single egg on cliff ledges or on the ground.


They feed on fish and squid.


  1. Clements, J. F., T. S. Schulenberg, M. J. Iliff, D. Roberson, T. A. Fredericks, B. L. Sullivan, and C. L. Wood. 2017. The eBird/Clements checklist of birds of the world: v2017, with updates to August 2017. Downloaded from http://www.birds.cornell.edu/clementschecklist/download/
  2. BirdLife International
  3. Wikipedia

Recommended Citation

External Links

GSearch checked for 2020 platform.1