Cocos (Keeling) and Christmas Island Birds

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Abbott's Booby, female and chick -  photographed on Christmas Island, August 2007

Abbott's Booby, female and chick - photographed on Christmas Island, August 2007
Janos Hennicke

This page explores a selection of birds from the Cocos (Keeling) and Christmas Islands. At the bottom of this page, information sheets in English, Malay and Chinese can be downloaded.

Red-footed Booby

Sula sula

Red-footed Booby photographed on Christmas Island

Red-footed Booby photographed on Christmas Island
Image copyright RE Johnstone, WA Museum  

Threatened Status

Not globally threatened and one of the most common and widespread of all the boobies.

Description

Adult birds from Christmas and Cocos (Keeling) Islands are mostly white except for pale golden buff on the head, neck and rump. Sometimes the rest of the white plumage also tinged yellow and the wing tips are brownish black. The eye is dark brown, the bill is pale, facial skin is pink, throat pouch blue grey to pink and legs and feet bright red. Length 65–73 cm. Juveniles differ from adults in being all brown or greyish brown with yellowish grey legs.

Call

Generally silent at sea, but at nest site a sharp grating “karr-ak”.

Breeding

Differs from most other boobies by nesting and roosting in trees. Breeds mainly in large colonies from April to June. Nest varies from a frail platform to a substantial bowl built in the canopy of trees and made with twigs and lined with finer leafy stems and quickly becoming covered with excreta. The single egg is chalky white over pale blue, but quickly becomes nest stained.

Life span

About 25 years.

Distribution

Breeding on islands in tropical Indian, Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. In the eastern Indian Ocean a very common resident on Christmas Island and North Keeling Island and also breeding on Ashmore Reef and Adele Island.

Habitat and food

These birds are well known for their spectacular plunge-diving, sometimes from great heights. They feed mainly on fish and squid often caught on moonlight nights and flying fish are sometimes taken in flight. The long thick tapering bill with serrated edges is especially designed for seizing fish under water.

White Tern

Gygis alba

White Tern in flight, photographed on Horsburgh Island

White Tern in flight, photographed on Horsburgh Island
Image copyright RE Johnstone, WA Museum  

Other names

Fairy Tern, White Noddy and Cocos Fairy Tern.

Status

This beautiful tern is a common breeding resident on North Keeling Island and on islands in Cocos group including West, South, Home and Horsburgh. Birds appear to remain around the islands in both inshore and offshore waters throughout the year. Their diet includes small fish and squid that move to the surface at night which suggests that dawn and dusk feeding is important as the birds pick food from the surface, or just below the surface, of the water. They are inquisitive and tame.

Description

Length 28–33 cm, wingspan 66–78 cm.

Adults (sexes similar) are completely white except for a small dusky patch in front of the eye and the shafts of the wing and tail feathers which are blackish. When perched, the wing extends well beyond the shallow forked tail. The iris is dark brown, the eye ring blackish and these together with the dusky lore patch give a large eyed appearance. The bill is slightly uptilted and is black grading to dark blue at the base and the legs and feet are greyish-blue. Juveniles are similar to adults except for orange-buff to gingery tips to feathers of forehead, crown, hindneck and centre of the throat and breast and the upper back and wing feathers are finely marked with dull brown. This mottled pattern is soon lost with wear.

Call

A guttural “haachhaach” and a clicking sound.

Breeding

Breeding is recorded throughout the year, but with seasonal peaks. A single egg is laid on a bare branch of a tree including Cocos Ironwood (Calophyllum), Octopus Bush (Argusia) and Tree Heliotrope (Tournefortia), carefully balanced in knotholes, against the midrib on a horizontal section of a coconut palm frond or on tree stumps, from 3–8 metres above ground. Eggs are buffy-white to olive colour and variably blotched and scrawled with grey and brown. Hatchlings are covered with greyish down with brownish tips giving a mottled appearance. Both parents share in the incubation of the egg and in feeding young.

Life Span

20–25 years.

Distribution

Restricted to tropical zones of the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans. In the Australian region breeding on Cocos (Keeling) Islands, Christmas Island, Lord Howe Island and Norfolk Island.

Abbott's Booby

Papasula abbotti

Abbott's Booby, female and chick -  Christmas Is; Aug 2007

Abbott's Booby, female and chick - photographed on Christmas Island, August 2007
Image copyright 
Janos Hennicke

Named after William Louis Abbott, the American naturalist who collected the first (or type) specimen in 1892 apparently on Assumption Island (western Indian Ocean). Synonym Sula abbotti.

Threatened Status

Currently listed as ‘Endangered’. World population estimated at around 6,000.

Description

A large 76–79 cm black and white booby.

Adults mostly white the lower back and rump mottled with black. Upperwing black in new plumage becoming brown with wear and upperwing coverts variably tipped white giving a conspicuous white spotted appearance in flight. Tail black and pointed. Underwing mostly white with broad black tips to flight feathers. There is an irregular black patch on the lower flanks behind the legs reaching the undertail coverts. Iris dark brown, facial skin and eye ring bluish black. Bill (slightly hooked and cutting edges serrated) is blue-grey tinged pink and tipped black in males; pink, tipped black in females. Legs and feet grey with outer third of webs black. Juvenile is similar to adult male, but duller and bill grey.

Call

Generally silent at sea, but at nesting site makes the deepest loudest call of any booby – a bull-like bellow, also loud croaks and grunts and sonorous groans.

Breeding

Nest a substantial bowl of twigs, built in topmost branches or in the outer canopy on thin lateral branches of rainforest trees on the central western plateau of the island. Nests generally 12–24m above the ground and usually solitary, but sometimes close together. A single chalky-white egg is laid between April and July. Incubation period 57 days and fledging period 24 weeks with most pairs raising one young every two years.

Life span

About 40 years.

Distribution

Breeding only on Christmas Island and ranging in local seas to vicinity of Java, Wallacea (eastern Indonesian islands), north Western Australia and western Indian Ocean.

Habitat and food

Feeding mainly on fish and squid. Tracking studies have shown that they forage within 40–100km of Christmas Island.

Threats to the species

Clearing of the forest breeding habitat for phosphate mining leading to decline of habitat quality is the major threat along with the recently introduced Yellow Crazy Ant Anoplolepis gracilipes (which preys on chicks). Also the impacts of climate change.

Christmas Island Imperial Pigeon

Ducula whartoni

Christmas Island Imperial Pigeon; photographed June 2011

Christmas Island Imperial Pigeon; photographed June 2011
Image copyright N Kolichis 

Other names

Christmas Imperial Pigeon.

Threatened Status

Currently listed as ‘Near Threatened’, previously ‘Critically Endangered’. Population now considered stable at around 4,000–5,000 birds.

Description

Adult a large (43–48 cm) mostly dark grey pigeon with oily green, bluish green and bronzy sheen. The back, wings and rump are blackish grey with oily green, purplish and bronzy sheen giving an overall dark green appearance. Breast and belly blackish grey grading to purplish grey on lower belly and flanks and the undertail is rich reddish brown. Eyes bright yellow, bill dark grey or black and legs and feet dull red or purplish red.

Juvenile birds are similar to adult but duller and legs and feet greyish brown.

Call

A soft “coo” often repeated as a series and a deep, low pitched booming “whoo” usually as a single note.

Breeding

Nest a loose-knit platform of dry twigs about 40 cm in diameter placed in dense foliage of trees from 3–8m above the ground. Two white eggs laid from August to February. Nestling period is 27 days.

Life span

No data, but probably more than 20 years.

Distribution

Endemic to Christmas Island and found throughout the island. Birds were introduced to Cocos (Keeling) Islands between 1890 and 1895, but this population was extinct by the early 1900s.

Habitat and food

Mainly canopy of rainforest; also secondary regrowth and less frequently in coastal forest on shore terraces. Feeds mainly on fruits including Ivory Mahagony (Dysoxylum gaudichaudianum), Cryptocarya spp., Planchonella duclitan, Melia sp., introduced Jamaican Cherry (Muntingia calabura), Eugenia sp. and Satinash (Syzygium nervosum); also buds, flowers and leaves.

Threats to the species

Threats mainly from forest clearing for phosphate mining and the Yellow Crazy Ant Anoplolepis gracilipes present a potential threat to nestlings.

Green Junglefowl

Gallus varius

Green Jungle Fowl - Cocos Island

Green Jungle Fowl - Cocos Island
Image copyright P Jones

Other name

Javan Junglefowl, Forktail.

Threatened Status

Not globally threatened, but in many areas of Indonesia this species is trapped for captive breeding.

Description

The junglefowls are some of the most familiar and distinctive of birds. The Green Junglefowl is closely related to the wild ancestor of the domestic chicken, the Red Junglefowl (Gallus gallus).

Length of male is 60 cm; of female is 42 cm.

Males are very distinctive with spectacular highly glossed dark green plumage, with a straight-edged pink and purplish comb, red and golden wattles and lappets and pinkish legs.

Females are mostly buffy brown, irregularly barred and mottled black. They also lack the comb, wattle and lappet.

Juveniles are similar to the female (hen), but young males soon develop adult male feathers.

Call

A harsh “Kookroh” repeated also a sharp “Chaw-aw-awk” and slow cackling “wok-wok-wok”.

Breeding

The nest is a depression on the ground in dense grass or other cover. Only 2–4 eggs are laid. Hatchlings recorded in June, but probably breed from about March to July.

Life span

No details, but probably over 20 years.

Distribution

Endemic to Indonesia, occurring on Java and the Lesser Sunda Islands. Originally introduced from Java to the Cocos Islands by the Clunies-Ross family before 1879 and now restricted to, and moderately common, on West Island in ones, twos and family groups.

Habitat and food

On West Island it favours open mown grass areas around the airstrip and the birds retreating into cover (dense coconut groves) when disturbed. Generally emerging from cover to feed in early morning and late afternoon mainly on seeds, insects and fruits that are gathered by scratching the leaf litter and soil. Spends the rest of the day in dense vegetation. Family groups often roost together.

Brown Booby

Sula leucogaster

Brown Booby - Christmas Island; photographed June 2011

Brown Booby - Christmas Island; photographed June 2011
Image copyright RE Johnstone, WA Museum  

Other names

White-bellied Booby. The name Booby has its origins in the Spanish ‘bobo’ – which means stupid – and refers to their lack of fear of man, making them easy to catch.

Threatened Status

Not threatened and one of the most widespread and common of the boobies.

Description

A medium-sized seabird with long, narrow pointed wings and a conical bill. Length 70–80 cm and wingspan 1.35 m.

Adults are very dark brown, except for white lower breast and belly. The bill is greyish white and the bare skin of face and throat is blue in males and mostly yellowish in females. Legs and feet yellow.

Juvenile birds are duller brown above and with dirty white underparts.

Call

The female utters a honking ‘kaak-kaak-kaak’ and the male a whistling or hissing ‘choof-choof-choof’ like a steam engine. Young birds in nests grunt and rattle their bills.

Breeding

The nest is a small scrape on bare ground or a rough bowl of twigs, seaweed and feathers loosely assembled around the scrape. On Christmas Island they favour the ledges of sea cliffs, bare areas of coast and under trees or shrubs in forest areas. Breeding occurs mainly in April–May and the eggs, usually two, are pale blue with a white chalky coating, but become nest stained very quickly. Both adults share in nest duties and the eggs are incubated under the webs of the feet. The newly hatched chick is naked with slaty grey skin and closed eyes, but becomes downy white in two weeks.

Life span

Probably more than 30 years.

White-tailed Tropicbird

Phaethon lepturus

White-tailed Tropicbird

White-tailed Tropicbird
Image copyright P Mortimer 

Other names

Yellow-billed Tropicbird and Golden Bosunbird (restricted to golden form on Christmas Island).

Threatened Status

Not globally threatened, but on some islands a number of suitable breeding sites have been lost. On Christmas Island rats, feral cats and Yellow Crazy Ants Anoplolepis gracilipes are major threats.

Description

The White-tailed Tropicbird is smaller and lighter than its close relative the Red-tailed Tropicbird but both have an amazing capacity for sustained flight. The very distinctive golden form of the White-tailed Tropicbird on Christmas Island, the so called Golden Bosun, is one of the most spectacular seabirds of our region.

Adult is white (with or without a weak to strong apricot or orange-yellow tinge), except for a black spot in front of the eye and extending over the eye to ear forming a facial mask. On Christmas Island only about 10% of the population are white. Extensive black on upperwing (on outer primaries) and on inner secondaries forming a conspicuous diagonal black bar on otherwise white wing. Long central tail feathers or streamers. Bill olive to yellow, legs greenish white and claws and ends of toes black.

Juvenile has blackish bill, lacks tail streamers and is extensively barred blackish on upperparts.

Call

A crackling or rattling ‘keyrrok’ usually given in pursuit display flights over the breeding areas also a harsh scream at nest.

Breeding

Nests in a variety of situations including tree hollows, among buttress roots, in cliff cavities and holes in limestone pinnacles. Breeding more or less continuous, single egg mostly white heavily marked with dark purplish brown. Both adults share in incubation and feeding the chick.

Life span

Probably around 40 years.

Distribution

In the eastern Indian Ocean occurs on Christmas Island, Cocos (Keeling) Islands, Ashmore Reef and Rowley Shoals. The golden form is only recorded from Christmas Island where they are found throughout the island from coast to inland plateau.

Habitat and food

Tropical waters well offshore. Its food consists mainly of squid and flying fish.

Common Noddy

Anous stolidus

Common Noddy - photographed on Cocos Island

Common Noddy - photographed on Cocos Island
Image copyright P Jones 

Other names

Brown Noddy.

Status

In the Australian region breeding visitor and resident.

Not globally threatened, but some populations are threatened by cats and rats.

Description

The largest and most heavily built of the noddies (38–41 cm). Mostly dark greyish brown becoming blackish on wing quills (outer wing) and tail. Forehead and crown pale grey, sharply demarcated from the black lores and merging gradually with the brownish grey of the nape. Eye ring partly white and partly black Tail wedge shaped with a central notch and bill and legs black.

Juveniles differ in having the bill shorter and finer, head mostly dark greyish brown and back feathers mostly brown tipped white.

Call

A low growling “kwok” and “eyak”

Breeding

Nest an untidy platform of twigs, leaves, seaweed and often pieces of plastic and other debris, built on coral shingle areas, ledges of shoreline cliffs, in forest trees and in crowns and forks of Coconut trees. On Christmas and Cocos (Keeling) Islands eggs laid mainly from April to July. The single egg is chalky white with reddish brown or dark brown spots and blotches on the larger end.

Life Span 

Probably 25–30 years.

Distribution

In the eastern Indian Ocean breeding on Christmas Island, Cocos (Keeling) Islands, Ashmore Reef, Scott Reef, Lacepede Islands, Houtman-Abrolhos and Lancelin Island. After breeding generally disperses to sea.

Habitat and food

Feeds mainly on small fish caught by hover dipping at the sea surface.

Christmas Island Hawk-Owl

Ninox natalis

Christmas Island Hawk-Owl

Christmas Island Hawk-Owl
Image copyright R Jackson 

Other names

Christmas Island Boobook. The name is an allusion to the type locality of Christmas Island.

Threatened Status

Currently listed as ‘Vulnerable’, but previously listed as Critically Endangered because of its small range.

Description

A small 26–29 cm owl mainly rufous brown with rows of white spots on upper wing coverts and darker brown barring on wing and tail feathers. Lores (feathers between the eye and the bill), short line above eye and chin white. Eyes yellow, bill blue grey and legs and feet pale yellow.

Adults of both male and female are similar except female is slightly larger.

Juvenile birds are similar to adult, but paler and with downy or fluffier appearance.

Call

A series of double syllable “cup-chup” or “boo-book” ending in a short, dog-like bark. This is repeated several times with birds answering one another.

Breeding

Poorly known. Nesting in hollows of large emergent trees in closed forest.

Life span

Probably in the order of 20 years.

Distribution

Endemic to Christmas Island and occurring throughout the island. This is the only owl reported from Christmas Island.

Habitat and food

Nocturnal and rather secretive. Most often seen perched motionless in dense foliage. Favours rainforest, but also forages in and around settlements. Food comprises mainly insects including beetles, bugs, grasshoppers and mantids; also reptiles including geckos and skinks, small birds, rats and bats. Threats include vehicle strikes and clearing of rainforest, but most of its habitat is now included in the national park.

Multi-Language Information Sheet PDF's

White Tern - PDF Download

Red-footed Booby - PDF Download

Abbott's Booby - PDF Download

Christmas Island Imperial Pigeon - PDF Download

Green Jungle Fowl - PDF Download

Brown Booby - PDF Download

White-tailed Tropicbird - PDF Download

Common Noddy - PDF Download

Christmas Island Hawk-Owl - PDF Download