“Flag that bird!” (Part 3)
As birds flying [‘aphôth = “winging” in air], so will the Lord of hosts defend Jerusalem; defending also He will deliver it; and passing over He will preserve it. (Isaiah 31:5)
Some birds are known for perching – we call them passerines. Some wade in shoreline tidewaters – we call them waders. Some birds don’t even fly at all – the flightless penguins only “fly” underwater! Many other birds, however, we rarely see doing anything but flying — winging in the air (to use the Biblical Hebrew’s word-picture). Today’s featured creature, the Great Frigatebird, is truly a bird of flight – it is conspicuous in the air, and its wings are both acrobatic and enormous. In “Flag those Birds! (Part 1)”, we considered 4 “banner birds” – besides globally popular eagles – that appear on national flags: Belgium’s Wallonian Chicken (Gallus gallus domesticus); Portugal’s Northern Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis); Burma’s Green Peafowl (Pavo muticus); and Dominica’s Sisserou Parrot (Amazona imperialis). In “Flag those Birds! (Part 2)”, we considered 2 more “banner birds”: the British Antarctic Territory’s Emperor Penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri), and the Saint Helena Plover, a/k/a Saint Helena’s skinny-legged “Wirebird” (Charadrius sanctaehelenae). As promised, this mini-series is continuing with more “flagged birds”, this time, with the Great Frigatebird (Fregata minor), the soaring seabird officially featured on the flag of Kiribati, a Pacific Ocean nation. God willing, we will subsequently review Papua New Guinea’s bird of paradise (on the flag of Papua New Guinea), the ubiquitous dove (on Fiji’s flag, as well as on the royal standard of Tonga), the black swan of Western Australia, the white piping shrike of South Australia, the condor of Bolivia; and Uganda’s crested crane. So for now, let us consider the frigatebird, which appears on the flag of Kiribati. In case you haven’t visited Kiribati yet, the Republic of Kiribati is an archipelago — a cluster of islands — located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Specifically it is comprised of 34 islands, one of which (Banaba) is a “raised coral” island, and the rest of which are reef islands or atolls. The term “middle” (in the phrase “middle of the Pacific”) is fitting, because Kiribati straddles the equator and the International Date Line. To avoid confusion about what “day” it is, — because it would be awkward for neighboring islands to be simultaneously experiencing different “days” on the calendar (e.g., some government offices were closed, observing Sunday, while others were open for business, observing Monday!), — the International Date Line is indented, so that now the Kiribati Islands are, technically speaking, Earth’s farthest frontal time zone (called “UTC+14”, meaning “Universal Time Coordinated”, a/k/a Coordinated Universal Time, f/k/a Universal Time [UT] or Greenwich Mean Time [GMT], — so UTC+14 is 14 hours ahead of the time observed in Greenwich, London, at the Royal Observatory). Sorry for taking so much time on this digression’s details.
Interestingly, Kiribati’s time-of-day matches that of Hawaii – but it is deemed one “day” ahead on the calendar. (Hawaii’s time zone is very “late” in the Earth’s rotational “day”, a fact that I recall because I worked with some lawyers who took advantage of that once — when a contract option deadline appeared to be lost, because locking in a particular contract option required a signature before 5:00pm on a certain day, but no time zone was specified – the solution was to FAX the contract papers to the Hawaii office and have them signed there, before it was 5:00pm Hawaii time!). Previously Kiribati was within (and almost synonymous with) the Gilbert Islands, just west of the old “date line” – when it was a British colony. (In fact, the name “Kiribati” is how the native language says “Gilberts”.) And, if you think that is confusing, you should check out how “daylight saving time” (which may locally vary from “UTC” time, during parts of the year) is applied in the central Pacific Ocean and to some of the neighboring island nations, such as Tonga, Samoa, and Tokelau!
Great Frigatebird (Fregata minor). The Great Frigatebird is found soaring above tropical oceans all over the world. Because it is almost always seen at sea, it is not surprising that English sailors (centuries ago) called it the “man-of-war”, a term that indicated a fast-sailing oceanic warship, the same kind of ship that the French called a “frigate” (la frégate). If you ever watch a frigatebird in the air, contextualized by a background (or foreground) that provides distance indexing – as I once did (a Magnificent Frigatebird “cousin”, actually, near the shoreline of Grand Cayman, one of the Cayman Islands), – you too will be impressed with the frigatebird’s speedy flight maneuvers. In fact, its habit of stealing food (such as fish) from other seabirds is so well-known that the bird might have been better labeled the “pirate-bird”. Why? Frigatebirds often harass seagulls carrying fish, in the air, repeatedly, until the seagull drops – abandons – his or her piscatorial food-catch, in order to escape the threatening frigatebird. As the bullied victim (seagull) flees the scene of the crime, empty-beaked, the buccaneering frigatebird swoops down after the plummeting food, snatching it out of the air before it drops into the water. The physical appearance of a frigatebird is not to be easily forgotten. Frigatebirds are mostly black, with long angular wings, with a long sharply forked tail that looks pointed when “closed”. (Males are almost all black, except for the red gular pouch (described below); the females have a white “bib” covering most of the neck-to-chest area (but have no gular pouch). Frigatebirds “have long, thin, hooked bills and the males [each] possess an inflatable gular pouch which can be blown up to form a huge scarlet ball during courtship”. [Quoting Marc Dando, Michael Burchett, & Geoffrey Waller, SeaLife, a Complete Guide to the Marine Environment (Smithsonian Institute Press, 1996), page 248.] The male’s bright red “gular pouch” is a skin-covered (i.e., featherless) inflatable throat sac that connects the lower half of the bird’s beak down to and below the bird’s neck. This inflatable throat sac, quite conspicuous during breeding season, is showcased during courtship displays, swelling into a balloon-like inflation (like a bullfrog), for a timeframe that may exceed 15 minutes! The noise produced by this throat sac “sound-box” is the frigatebird’s rattling equivalent to yodeling.
The Great Frigatebird is usually seen soaring above ocean waters, or swooping through the air near island beaches, looking (“on the fly”) for a meal. In fact, frigatebirds are rarely seen on land during daylight, though they must use land for sleeping and for nesting activities, such as laying and hatching their eggs. [See www.icr.org/article/why-we-want-go-home/ — citing Tony Soper, Oceans of Birds (London: David & Charles Press, 1989), pages 82-83.] Oceanographer Tony Soper describes the winged magnificence of this oceanic flier: “Frigatebirds live up to their reputation [i.e., “frigate” = seafaring warship] with spectacular manoeuvres in aerial pursuit and piracy, stalling and turning with total control in a way which outclasses any competition. Supremely aerial seabirds, they can hang seemingly motionless in the sky for hours [gliding], waiting to pounce. The air is their daytime medium, they alight on the water only at their peril, for they have small oil glands and their plumage is not waterproof. … They are equally at a disadvantage on dry land, for their legs are short and hopelessly inadequate for walking. They must shuffle and climb to a point from which they can take off [and “land” on a rising thermal air current, as if it was an elevator]. By night they roost on a tree or bush which offers a convenient launch-pad when the sunrise brings a thermal lift. They have huge wings, up to 7ft. (2.1m) in span…. With their shapely wings they float effortlessly in dynamic soaring flight, plunging only to retrieve food items from the surface or to snatch a flying fish. Sometimes they chase other seabirds to relieve [i.e., rob] them of their catch. “ [Quoting Tony Soper, Oceans of Birds (London: David & Charles Press, 1989), pages 82-83.] Frigatebirds congregate in breeding colonies, often near colonies of other seabirds (such as cormorants, pelicans, and boobies), not infrequently mooching food collected by their avian neighbors.
The frigatebird appears to be soaring in sunrise-dominated sky above the ocean waters, in the colorful flag of Kiribati, with the three white stripes representing the three island subsets of Kiribati, the Gilbert Islands, Phoenix Islands, and some of the Line Islands. (The national coat-of-arms is similar.) Earlier, when Kiribati belonged to the British colony of “Gilbert and Ellice Islands”, the colonial flag included the image of a yellow frigatebird (within a coat-of-arms emblem) soaring in the sunrise above ocean waters.
Kiribati is a nation that celebrates its past, including its providential heritage as a colony Christianized by the British. Its official public holidays not only include Easter (celebrating the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ) and related days (“Good Friday”, “Holy Saturday”, and “Easter Monday”)), as well as Christmas (celebrating the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ), but also “Gospel Day” (a moveable holiday scheduled on or near July 11th), to celebrate the coming of the Christian faith to these Pacific islands, thanks to God sending Christian missionaries. Now that’s a day worth celebrating! (See Romans 10:20.) Other national holidays celebrate elderly men (“Unimwane Day”), elderly women (“Unaine Day”), youth (“Youth Day”), servants (“Boxing Day” – for giving boxed Christmas presents to men and women who serve), and women in general (“International Women’s Day”). So why not have a holiday to celebrate the value of men in general? Maybe the omission should be compared to the difference between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, as they are celebrated in most churches. On Mother’s Day the typical sermon raves about how wonderful and precious mothers are (and they are applauded, given roses, etc.), — but on Father’s Day the typical sermon castigates men for being such sorry fathers, failing, failing, and failing yet again to carry their paternal responsibilities properly — why won’t they do a better job? (Yet consider this related fact about ingrates: God the Heavenly Father, Who never fails, knows the ugly ingratitude of billions of humans who fail to appreciate His wonderful, caring providences. The Lord Jesus was a “man of sorrows”, the Holy Spirit is sometimes “grieved”, and surely God the Father is often disappointed.) The next scheduled bird, on this mini-series list, is the Bird of Paradise, but that bird must wait for another day. Please stay tuned (and don’t forget Mother’s Day)!
More Articles by James J. S. Johnson
Fregatidae – Frigatebirds Family