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Seabird Picture of the Month, April 2004:

Red-tailed Tropicbird (Phaethon rubricauda)

Photo and text by Ian Jones

Red-tailed Tropicbird, photo by Ian Jones

Red-tailed Tropicbirds are remarkable seabirds that display two elongated central tail feathers during courtship flight displays at their breeding colonies on tropical islets. Each of the streamers takes half a year (180 days) to grow and the two streamers are grown alternately so for most of the year a bird shows a single partly worn fully-grown streamer and a second growing streamer. Only for a brief period during courtship do pairs display two fully-grown streamers, one of which (the older) is dropped shortly after laying. Fully grown streamer length is highly variable across individuals, stays nearly the same between years within individuals, and has no relationship with body condition, body size, age or any measure of breeding performance - a typical sexually selected trait.

Two recent papers by Allison Veit and Ian L. Jones addressed the function of red streamers, based on fieldwork carried out at Tern Island, French Frigate Shoals, NW Hawaiian Islands in 2001 and 2002:

Veit, A.C. and I.L. Jones. 2003. The function of tail streamers of Red-tailed Tropicbirds (Phaethon rubricauda) as inferred from patterns of variation. Auk 120: 1033-1043.

Veit, A.C. and I.L. Jones. 2004. Timing and patterns of growth of Red-tailed Tropicbird (Phaethon rubricauda) tail streamer ornaments. Ibis 146: 355-359.

To learn more about other seabirds, browse the Seabird Flash Cards on the Seabird Page of this website.

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