Return to Main Page   Dakota Birder Blog    

White-tailed Tropicbird

Phaethon lepturus

Length: 15 inches (can be nearly 30" with tail) Wingspan: 36 inches Seasonality: Non-resident in South Dakota
ID Keys: Obvious black-and-white upper wing pattern (see photo below), white otherwise, long center tail plume on adults

White-tailed Tropicbird - Phaethon lepturusThe White-tailed Tropicbird is a beautiful bird of the tropical oceans.  They are found throughout many of the worlds tropical oceans, but those seen in the North American part of their range breed in the Caribbean or Bermuda.  Outside of the breeding season, they may wander near much of the eastern U.S. coast, and are even seen inland in the eastern U.S. on very rare occasions when storm events occur.  There are also breeding populations in Hawaii in the United States, but despite being found in other locations in the Pacific, they are not known to wander along the western coast of the United States.

Habitat: Found on tropical islands for breeding, usually rocky islands that provide ledges and cliffs for nesting.  Outside of the breeding season, they may range widely out to sea, although nearly always over warmer waters.

Diet: Feeds mostly on fish, especially flying fish, but will also feed on other small marine creatures such as squid, and sometimes small crustaceans or other prey.

Behavior: Feeds by flying above the water and plunging down when prey is spotted.  They will also sometimes skim prey from the surface of the water while still in flight. 

Nesting:  White-tailed Tropicbirds don't build nests, but lay their single egg directly on bare ground on a rocky cliff ledge or in a crevice in the rocks.  Both the parents help to incubate the eggs, and both parents help to feed and raise the chick upon hatching.

Song: The White-tailed Tropicbird does have a harsh whiny call, but they are mostly silent away from breeding colonies.

Migration: They are permanent residents in parts of their range, such as in and around breeding colonies in the Caribbean.  However, they are only summer residents in Bermuda, and are only likely to be seen off the East Coast of the United States in the spring or summer. 

Interactive eBird map: Click here to access an interactive eBird map of White-tailed Tropicbird sightings

Similar Species: In North America, most likely to be confused with the other two tropicbird species that make occasionally visits to the area, the Red-billed Tropicbird and the Red-tailed Tropicbird.

Conservation Status: The White-tailed Tropicbird is found across many of the world's tropical oceans, and despite indications that populations have been in decline, there are currently no significant threats to the species.  The IUCN lists the White-tailed Tropicbird as a species of "Least Concern".

Further Information: 1) Adubon Guide - White-tailed Tropicbird

2) BirdLife International - White-tailed Tropicbird

3) BluePeace of the Maldives - White-tailed Tropicbird

Photo Information: Photo taken by kansasphoto - Photo licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License


Click below for a higher-resolution map
White-tailed Tropicbird - Range Map
South Dakota Status: Non-resident in South Dakota

Additional White-tailed Tropicbird (coming soon!!)