The animal residents of the Galapagos are famously unafraid of humans, which makes spotting and observing Galapagos birds a fascinating activity since you’ll be able to get up close to many species. You’ll get to understand the habits and rituals of the islands’ birds like nowhere else and will enjoy unprecedented chances to watch courtship dances, aerial battles, hunting techniques, and even newly fledged juveniles attempting their first flight.
The islands have 56 native species of birds, 45 of which are found only in the Galapagos. Here are 12 species of Galapagos birds you’ll want to look out for during your travels in the area:
The Galapagos penguin is the only member of the penguin family to live on the equator. The black-and-white Galapagos penguins are both cute and curious; having a few pop up next to you while you’re snorkeling is a memorable experience. Stay around and watch them dive—they zoom around like bullets under the water. The penguins are in the islands all year round, so you’ll have a good chance of seeing a couple during your visit.
Unlike its distant relatives elsewhere in the world, this Galapagos bird has lost its ability to fly; swimming is a more useful and efficient way for it to feed. You’ll recognize this bird by its little stubby wings, used only for balance, and strong legs. You’ll often spot it diving for eels, small octopus, and fish. As with other cormorants, the feathers of the Galapagos cormorant aren’t waterproof so you’ll sometimes see the birds standing on the rocks with their wings spread out in the sun to dry after each dive.
The graceful waved albatross arrives in late March, laying eggs between mid-April and late June. The waved albatross mates for life, and the egg is laid on the ground. Chicks are raised in nursery groups so the parents can go off to feed. Once they’ve fledged, the young albatross will spend six years at sea before returning to the same spot to find a mate.
The rare Galapagos hawk, the largest land bird of the Galapagos, is mostly seen on the main islands of Isabela and Fernandina. The Galapagos Conservation Trust believes there are only about 150 breeding pairs left.
Galapagos hawks are the islands’ only birds of prey. They feed on giant centipedes, locusts, small reptiles, including baby iguanas and sea turtles, and also scavenge, using their razor-sharp, hooked beaks. If you’re lucky enough to spot a nest, often found low in the trees or on the ground, steer clear as the slightest disturbance can cause the birds to abandon their young.
When Darwin visited the Galapagos in 1835, he studied the beaks of the finches and found that they were slightly different on each island. He concluded that the birds had evolved, and their beak shapes had adapted over time to catch the different food available on each island, be it seeds or insects. The strongest and most successful finches passed on their genes, which led to a gradual change in the birds on each island.
This cheeky mockingbird, found only on the island of Española, is identified by its grey and white plumage, long tail, and curved bill. But with no fear of humans, you’ll more than likely identify it as the bird that’s hitching a ride on your day pack or pecking at your shoelaces.
Unlike their namesakes in other parts of the world, mockingbirds in the Galapagos don’t imitate other species. They do, however, have different calls for different situations and naturalists have observed that in unlikely cooperation between species, marine iguanas have learned to recognize the mockingbird’s alarm call, possibly because the two share the same predators, like the Galapagos hawk.
The Galapagos flycatcher is found throughout the islands, mainly in the arid lowlands. Like mockingbirds, they’re both curious and fearless and won’t hesitate to perch on your backpack or even your head. They’re attracted to cameras, too, drawn to their reflections, and may well fly at photographers, or perch themselves on long lenses.
Although the Galapagos petrel is endemic to the islands, its range is enormous and individuals have been spotted as far away as Central America and the northern reaches of South America. Petrels are built for long-distance flight with long wings that allow them to glide as they hunt for squid, fish, and crustaceans. You’ll identify them by their white underparts, wings outlined with black, and their white foreheads.
With a population of just a few hundred individuals, these handsome birds are thought to be one of the rarest gulls in the world. Lava gulls are easily identified thanks to their sooty grey or black head, dark grey wings, and pure white line around the eye.
They nest on the ground, hidden by the coastal vegetation, and rather than forming colonies, they tend to keep to themselves, defending their territory aggressively from other birds.
The swallow-tailed gull is the only nocturnal gull in the world. It is equipped with super-sensitive night vision that allows it to prey on squid and small fish that rise to the surface of the ocean at night to feed on plankton. The adult bird is easily identified by its sooty-colored head and big, black eyes ringed with scarlet. Their white tail, as the bird’s name suggests, also has a distinctive V shape in flight. When they’re not nesting, swallow-tailed gulls are at sea, covering a range of hundreds of miles in search of food.
The Galapagos dove is a brown bird with a reddish breast, black and white wings, bright red legs, and a striking cobalt-blue ring around its eyes. You’ll see them around prickly pear cacti, feeding on the fruits and digging vigorously for buried seeds. On some islands, the cactus has evolved with softer spines, allowing the doves easier access to the flowers, which they pollinate in the absence of bees.
The blue-footed booby is probably the most iconic of the archipelago’s birds. Its feet are a startling shade of blue, and for a male, the bluer the better, as a vibrant hue is considered a sign of virility. Boobies show off their feet in an elaborate courtship dance that involves the male strutting around the female in a high-stepping gait after presenting her with the gift of a stick or a pebble.
An efficient fishing machine, the booby streamlines its body by folding back its wings and diving from up to 80 feet, hitting the water at 60 mph and trapping anchovies and sardines in its long, serrated bill on the ascent from the dive.
Inspired to seek out these remarkable Galapagos birds for yourself? A luxury is the best way to experience this incredible place. Click here to schedule a chat with me to get started planning!