Scientific name: Sula nebouxii
Conservation status: Least Concern
No. Although the Galapagos is home to around half the world’s population of blue-footed boobies, they can also be found down the western coasts of Central and South America, including El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Columbia (mainland Ecuador), Peru and the northern tip of Chile.
The name, ‘booby’ may come from the Spanish, from the word “bobo”, meaning dumb. They say the Spaniards thought them easy to catch when they landed on their boats. In the Galapagos Islands, they are certainly very tame. But everything is tame in the Galápagos, and you will actually find that boobies, in particular, are quick as darts when they need to be.
Much like Elvis and his blue-suede shoes, the blue-footed booby takes great pride in the colour of his feet. After all, the brighter the blue, the better his chances are of securing a mate. Come breeding season, males perform an extraordinary, and often amusing ritual in which they show off their oversized, aqua-blue feet to the single ladies. Much like Dick Van Dyke’s rooftop dance in Mary Poppins, the booby kicks its blue feet up in a high-step jig, in the hope of winning the heart of a female onlooker.
The reason females find blue feet so attractive (and the brighter the blue the more attractive they are deemed) is because the color of their feet reflects their health and immune status. If a male is deprived of food for 48 hours, the color will drain from his feet. This is because they get the natural carotenoid pigments from their diet. The carotenoids also play a role in stimulating the immune system, and only males that are in good health can channel these carotenoids into their feet. Researchers discovered that feet would get duller when the booby’s immune system was compromised.
So when looking for a breeding partner, females are drawn to males who are well fed and in good health. Interestingly, researchers have found that males pay attention to females’ feet too (For more information on these studies, see ‘Research Papers’ at the end of this post)
Blue-footed boobies are opportunistic breeders, meaning their mating ‘season’ tends to be when the food supply is abundant. Generally, this would fall within the Cold and Dry Season (June – Dec) but breeding can take place at any time of the year.
To kick things off, the male presents the female with a little gift, perhaps a twig or small pebble, the equivalent, shall we say, of a corsage on prom night. He then hits the dance floor with several high-step kicks and if the female starts copying his moves, he knows he’s half way there. From here, he introduces several more moves, pointing his beak, tail and outstretched wings towards the sky. If the females continues to mirror him, he is in luck and once paired, blue-footed boobies mate for life.
Blue-footed boobies generally lay 2-3 eggs a year, with the parents taking turns to incubate them. In a recent report, scientists claimed that the boobies purposefully dirty their eggs to camouflage them from predators. After closely monitoring 3668 eggs over a 20 year period they discovered that around 50% of the eggs were lost to predators in the first 5 days when eggs were relatively white. However after 15 days, when eggs were at their dirtiest, the rate of predation leveled off. The biologist, Herbert Spencer, might have termed this ‘survival of the dirtiest’?
Besides its dance moves? Blue-footed boobies are, without a doubt, among the best divers in the world.
In the Galapagos, the blue-footed boobies often gather in great numbers above the ocean, at heights of up to 80 feet (25 meters). From here they can spot fish under the water with astounding accuracy. After identifying a shoal of fish, they plummet, like hundreds of arrows, into the water, breaking the surface at speeds of 60 miles per hour or more, and yet with the grace and skill of an Olympic Gold diver.
They can dive up to 3 meters below the surface, often breaking up a shoal of fish upon entry before picking out an individual fish silhouetted against the bright sky. If one booby misses its catch, a second one will come right behind to grab it. When the fishing is good they can gather in thousands, and the spectacle is mind-blowing.
Blue footed boobies can be found on many Galapagos Islands, including our island of Santa Cruz. However, one of our favourite islands to observe them is on North Seymour Island, a small islet directly north of Balta Island and Santa Cruz. For more details, see our Land-Based Safaris.
“They’re sort of just a strange and unique bird, and they just have something special to them,” – Will Gladstone, co-founder of Blue Feet Foundation.
After learning that the blue-footed booby population in the Galapagos had fallen, two brothers started selling socks to help raise money to protect their favourite bird. Having raised thousands of dollars, we applaud their efforts and enjoy following their fund-raising journey on instagram.
To find out more about traveling to the Galapagos with kids and how they might also draw inspiration from these unique islands and extraordinary wildlife, visit Our Ultimate Guide to the Galapagos with Kids.
For more information on other birds in the Galapagos visit our guide to Galapagos Birds or Galapagos Wildlife.
Research papers on the blue-footed booby: