Red-billed Tropicbird

(Phaethon aethereus)

Introduction by Nate Swick, ABA Blog editor

Red-billed Tropicbird is the 2019 ABA Bird of the Year! BOY artist Megan Massa created the art to be featured on the cover of the February 2019 issue of Birding magazine.

It feels a bit obvious, doesn’t it? That the ABA, celebrating our 50th year in 2019, would choose our long-standing logo bird, the Red-billed Tropicbird, Phaethon aethereus, to be the Bird of the Year in 2019. And it is, of course, but it’s more than that.

We’ll be looking back over the past half century quite a bit in the upcoming 12 months, and the tropicbird is an important part of our organizational history. On the surface, it’s admittedly a little strange that a birding organization based primarily in the English-speaking parts of North America would choose a bird like a tropicbird for its logo. It is a species that is undeniably tropical and unapologetically exotic. More than a species that is familiar, it is a species that is sought after. It’s a bird that a birder typically doesn’t come across until well into their birding career. But it’s a bird that has also come to mean different things over the nearly 50 years that it has represented the American Birding Association, a change that has more or less mirrored the way the organization itself has changed.

The ABA was founded in 1969 as an organization for “serious” birders. Birders who were interested in listing and travel and, a bit later in the organization’s history, difficult identifications. Early on, the ABA needed a logo. Enter Guy Tudor, who at the time of the ABA’s founding already was a noted field guide illustrator. His design, created in 1971, featured two sides of a globe, oriented in that classic movie version of a binocular view, with a Red-billed Tropicbird flying in the foreground. In a short commentary, in the Nov./Dec. 1971 Birding, Tudor explained that the globe symbolized the “world-wide interests of our members,” and that the tropicbird represented “both ‘the rare bird’ and the far-ranging qualities of the hobby and the sport of birding.”

The first ABA logo, designed by Guy Tudor and featured on the cover of the December 1971 issue of Birding magazine.

In many ways those values are still a part of the modern ABA. For decades the organization has been at the forefront of bird identification. We have published bird-finding guides to many of the ABA Area’s most famous birding sites. We created the rules, the code of ethics, and the leaderboards that govern the “sport” of birding as it exists in the 21st century. And our publications have led the way with ID articles on gulls and sparrows, “empids” and “stints,” and more. There is little about birding culture in North America that hasn’t been influenced by the ABA, even as the organization has transitioned to one that cares as much, if not more, about building the community of birders than the totals of our members’ lists.

And it’s this transition that is most evident when you compare Tudor’s tropicbird art with the image created by our 2019 Bird of the Year artist, Megan Massa. In Tudor’s original art we are looking up at the bird, focusing on the extraordinary sighting. It’s a feeling that every person who has seen a tropicbird will recognize. In Massa’s art, however, we’re looking down from the bird, which shares the cover with a boatload of enthusiastic birders reveling in the experience of seeing a tropicbird. And that is a feeling that every single birder will recognize, whether you are looking at a Red-billed Tropicbird or an Evening Grosbeak or an American Kestrel.

So yes, our 50th year is, in part, about the Red-billed Tropicbird. It’s an extraordinary bird. But it’s also about the birders we have had the opportunity to spend time with, and to learn from, and build into a strong and vibrant birding community that appreciates spending extraordinary moments in extraordinary places looking at extraordinary things.

So Happy 50th Anniversary, American Birding Association. And welcome Red-billed Tropicbird as 2019 Bird of the Year!

Fun Facts About Red-billed Tropicbird:

  • The Red-billed Tropicbird was first described by none other than Carolus Linnaeus in 1758, in his 10th edition of Systema Naturae
  • Red-billed Tropicbird is colloquially called “bosun bird”, also spelled “boatswain bird”, from the similarity of its shrill call to a boatswain’s whistle.  An alternative derivation of the name is from the semblance of the tail feathers to marlin spikes. Local names used in the West Indies include “truphit”, “trophic”, “white bird”, “paille-en-queue”, “paille-en-cul”, “flèche-en-cul”, and “fétu”.
  • All three tropicbird species have totipalmate feet (all four toes are connected by a web). The legs of tropicbirds are located far back on their body, making walking impossible, so that they can move on land only by pushing themselves forward with their feet.

The name: The Red-billed Tropicbird is one of very few species that still bears its original scientific name, Phaethon aethereus, given by Linnaeus in 1758. The genus name is derived from Ancient Greek phaethon, “sun” while the species name comes from Latin aetherius, “heavenly”

Identification: Tropicbirds are pelagic birds with overall white plumage, long pointed wings, and a distinctive long streamer tail. Red-billed Tropicbird is differentiated from its two closest relatives by its white tail, large red-orange bill, and a back with fine black bars.

Other interesting links: