For participants planning on a Galapagos cruise, there are multiple “bucket-list” experiences awaiting the avid nature lover. An encounter with a Giant Tortoise, a sighting of a Waved Albatross, or seeing the brief, colourful flash of the delightful Sally Lightfoot Crab are just a few. Something else that’s a real treat for those lucky enough to bear witness is the intriguing and energetic ritual mating dance of the archipelago’s Blue-footed Boobies, Sula nebuxii.
These birds are seen in abundance around the archipelago (around half the world’s breeding pairs make their home there), particularly on the islands of Daphne, Espanola, San Cristobal and Isabela. Depending on the time of year, it’s not uncommon for visitors to observe the mating dance while on a Galapagos cruise.
The Blue-footed Boobies
It’s patently obvious how these quirky-looking birds got their name, and their webbed cerulean feet are their pride and joy. While the birds are not particularly handsome â€“ they have a fairly non-descript white and brown plumage â€“ their fabulous feet more than make up for it. They are shown off to great aplomb during the courtship dance and, to the female of the species, the bluer the male’s feet, the more attractive he is to her.
The Mating Ritual
The species normally mate for life and breeding occurs seasonally. However, it is not uncommon for them to mate at various other times throughout the year as well. When the time for courtship arrives, it’s an elaborate and very energetic process. Although their name is actually derived from the Spanish “bobo” (dunce), referring to their clumsy movements on land, their mating dance makes for a compelling viewing.
The male begins with a slow, deliberate strutting motion, lifting each foot as high as possible before stamping it back on the ground. While this may look comical to humans, it’s an important part of the ritual to assert his strength and dominance. The male then effects “skypointing”, which involves tilting his head back dramatically and pointing his long beak skywards, with the tail erect and wings spread wide and high (their wing span can reach up to five feet). They also release a high pitched whistling call while performing the dance.
During courtship, the female may also skypoint and the pair undergoes a ritual of touching beaks and lifting each foot alternately. They sometimes arrange stones and bits of twigs on the ground between them as the dance continues.
Because the males and females look very much alike, the easiest way of telling them apart during the courtship dance is their size (females are larger) and the amount of work the males put in to attracting the females.
Note: the bird’s aqua feet are not just pretty but also practical. They serve an important purpose to keep the eggs warm while they’re incubating and, subsequently, the chicks when they’re hatched. Males and females take turns incubating the eggs, and both raise the hatchlings.
Witness the Dance of the Blue-footed Booby on a Galapagos Cruise
For nature lovers looking for the most fulfilling way of exploring this wildlife-rich archipelago, an organised small group Galapagos cruise offers an outstanding way to do so. Accompanied by an experienced naturalist guide, participants will enjoy up-close encounters with the wildlife â€“ including the opportunity to witness the mating dance of the Blue-footed Booby.
Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer with a special interest in the unique wildlife of the Galapagos Islands. Marissa chooses the expert-led Galapagos cruise itineraries organised by Naturetrek, which have brought her unforgettable sightings of a wide range of wildlife in one of the most spectacular regions on Earth.
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