Bird Watcher's General Store

“A Cape Cod Destination Icon For 40 Years”

Brown Booby

Dear Bird Folks,

In a section right below your weekly column, the newspaper also lists the recent bird sightings. Last week the sightings included two Brown Boobies. Shouldn’t those birds be in the Galápagos or someplace like that? What brings them up here?

– Jason, Chatham, MA


Good for you, Jason,

I’m glad you also read Mass Audubon’s Weekly Wildlife (mostly birds) Sightings. I look forward to it. It gives me an idea of what birds other folks are seeing. And because I know the guy who compiles the information, I get a copy of the report a day in advance. It’s like insider trading for bird watchers, only it’s not illegal and it makes me look smarter than everyone else…at least for one day.

You are right about the Brown Booby sightings. One bird was seen off of Woods Hole and another off of Eastham’s First Encounter Beach. Usually found much farther south, these boobies, as well as several Sooty Terns (another southern species), appeared to have been dragged up by Hurricane Ishtar, or whatever that storm was called. While it goes without saying that hurricanes are terrible weather events, they do make life interesting for birders. Big storms often give us an opportunity to observe birds we may otherwise never have a chance to see. I tend to go birding when the weather is pleasant and after all of my other obligations (work, chores, nap) have been addressed. Other people are more aggressive. They put everything else on hold and head for their favorite birding beach the moment they learn a storm is coming. This is where a birder is most likely to spot a “hurricane waif.” (FYI: A hurricane waif is a bird that has been pushed out of its normal range by a storm and not a character in a Dickens’ novel.)

You were also right about boobies living in the Galápagos, but not Brown Boobies. Galápagos has the famed Blue-footed Booby, which, as far I know, has never set a single blue foot on Cape Cod. Because of its elaborate courtship ceremony, the Galápagos bird gets all the media attention. But with its white belly, chocolate brown body, and bright yellow/green feet, the Brown Booby is arguably a better-looking bird. In addition, it also has its own rather entertaining courtship display. But since these boobies tend to nest away from the tourist cameras, they haven’t gained the same level of fame the Galápagos birds have. It’s all about marketing.

For anyone who hasn’t been to the Galápagos, let me explain that boobies are large seabirds, closely related to our own Northern Gannets.* Like gannets, boobies forage by flying above the ocean, searching for schools of fish. When a school is spotted, the birds dive down, but not feet first like Ospreys do. Instead, boobies dive face first, holding their wings tight against their bodies and piercing the water like feathered missiles. This dramatic, but seemingly painful method of fishing allows the boobies to grab fish that are out of reach of gulls, terns and their friends. *Northern Gannets are very large white birds (weighing nearly three times as much as a Herring Gull) and can be seen around here year-round. This is especially true in the cooler months, when thousands of them are regularly seen making spectacular dives just off shore. Beach walkers who are normally focused on finding shells, beach glass or lost change can easily catch sight of them…if they actually looked up once in a while.

During the breeding season, most birds, particularly females, develop a brood batch. This is a feather-less area on the belly that allows body heat to warm the eggs. This is not how boobies do it. Instead of a balmy belly, boobies use something significantly less charming…their feet. To help prevent heat loss, birds restrict the flow of blood to their extremities. But boobies can increase the flow of warm blood to their big feet, allowing them to incubate their eggs using the old hot foot method. This technique is an efficient way to hatch the couple’s two eggs, but the birds aren’t always the best providers. Most often, the last chick to hatch doesn’t survive, which is not a good thing for a lot of reasons. Brown Boobies usually breed on tropical islands, but due to the encroachment of humans, along with the animals we bring with us, their population is in steep decline. It’s estimated that ninety percent of their once abundant population has disappeared, and that stinks.

While I was working on this column, I came upon a 2018 story in the Vineyard Gazette. It was about a Brown Booby that had surprised the crew of a commercial fishing boat by landing on the ship’s bow and riding it back to the Vineyard. The captain said the bird was totally tame and allowed the local folks to take photographs, before eventually moving on. While this a cool story, it’s worth noting that the bird’s tameness is the apparent origin of its odd name. Today, when any bird lands on a ship it’s a photo-op, but in the old days, such a bird would have been eaten. It is thought the word booby is derived from “bobo,” Spanish slang for stupid. It’s too bad a bird can’t simply be friendly, without being called stupid or becoming lunch.

That’s all I have to say about Brown Boobies, Jason. If I didn’t completely answer your question, you might be able to find a bit more info online. But if you type booby into a search engine, you probably should add the word “bird” with it. If you don’t, you might end up with photos of…well, you know.