Not all the land birds you’ll see in the Galapagos Islands are small, sweet songbirds. The landscape is also populated with everything from mockingbirds and crakes, to hawks and owls.
These islands are also visited by some very familiar-looking migrants during the northern winter months. Plus, two invasive species have found their niche in the Galapagos.
In the Galapagos Islands, the larger-sized birds are hunted by feral cats and dogs. Goats and pigs destroy native vegetation that provides food and nesting sites for these birds. Although not as affected by Philorni downsi fly larvae as the small birds are, mockingbirds and others are infected with avian pox.
Some of the larger birds begin nesting after the first rains come in December. Others prefer the dryer months of the year. El Niño events can affect breeding.
There is no mistaking a Galapagos Mockingbird, as its appearance and song is much like its cousins elsewhere. This grey and white mottled bird has a long tail and thin, down-ward curving beak. Galapagos Mockingbird is the most common species, though several islands have their own species. It is this bird, not Darwin’s finches, which piqued Charles Darwin’s curiosity while in the Galapagos.
On Española is Mimus macdonaldi, the largest of the mockingbirds. The elimination of goats on this island has allowed the vegetation to rebound, and thus the population of this bird. San Cristobal Mockingbird (Mimus melanotis) is the smallest of these birds and, as its name indicates, is found on San Cristobal Island. Floreana Mockingbird (Mimus trifasciatus) is extinct on its home island, but still seen on Champion and Gardner islets near Floreana.
No matter on which island they are found, mockingbirds prefer open scrublands in arid zones. They are omnivorous, eating fleshy fruits and insects. They have been observed cracking seabird eggs, drinking blood from injured sea lions and eating ticks from marine iguanas. These mockingbirds are more closely related to those of North America and the Caribbean, rather than species from South America. Galapagos Mockingbirds are affected by destruction of their habitat’s vegetation and avian pox. Thus far, it appears they are not affected by Philornis downsi.
- Scientific name – Mimus parvulus
- Spanish name – cucuve de Galapagos
- Length – 25 centimeters (10 inches)
- Best islands to see them – Santa Cruz, Santa Fe, Santiago, Pinta, Marchena, Genovesa, Isabela, Fernandina, Darwin and Wolf islands
- Breeding / nesting season – October-April
The endemic Galapagos Dove is dark, reddish-brown bird with a rose-colored neck and breast and buff-colored abdomen. Its brown wings are streaked with black and white. A distinctive sky-blue ring rounds its eyes. It has a downward curving beak. Galapagos Dove inhabits the arid lowlands, feasting on seeds, fruits and insects. It is also a pollinator. It is affected by avian pox.
- Scientific name – Zenaida galapagoensis
- Spanish name – paloma de Galápagos
- Length – 18-23 centimeters (7-9 inches)
- Best islands to see them – common on many of the islands
- Breeding / nesting season – December-May, reaching its peak in February
Dark-billed Cuckoo is a medium-sized dark-brown bird with a beige breast. It has a short neck, long tail and long, pointed wings. It has a short, dark beak. This elusive bird is a Galapagos resident, inhabiting wet scrub and woodlands. Its diet consists mainly of insects, with some fruits and seeds. It is possibly affected by Philornis downsi.
- Scientific name – Coccyzus melacoryphus
- Spanish name – cuclillo
- Length – 27 centimeters (11 inches)
- Best islands to see them – San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Floreana, Isabela and other major islands
- Breeding / nesting season – December-March
Galapagos Martin is the only endemic member of the swallow family in the archipelago. It looks much like the Purple Martin, with males being shiny blue-violet and females, dull blue above with a cocoa-brown underside. The wings are pointed and the narrow tail forked. Galapagos Martin may be seen in mangroves, coastal cliffs or volcano rims. It feeds on insects, capturing them in flight. Possibly affected by Philornis downsi.
- Scientific name – Progne modesta
- Spanish name – golondrina de Galápagos
- Length – 15 centimeters (6 inches)
- Best islands to see them – all islands, especially San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Floreana, Isabela; absent from the northern five islands (Culpepper, Wenman, Pinta, Marchena and Genovesa) and rare on Española
- Breeding / nesting season – August-March
Galapagos Rail (also call Galapagos Crake) is endemic to the archipelago. Its back is dark brown spotted with white, and the underside is greyish-brown. A narrow white band marks its flanks and thighs. Its iris is red. The bill and legs are dark brown. It is a near-flightless bird. Galapagos Rail prefers the deep underbrush of moist grasslands and highland forests. It feeds on insects during the day. This species’ largest threats are being hunted by feral dogs, cats and pigs, and the destruction of habitat by goats and cattle. Eradication programs of these introduced species have allowed the rail population to recover.
- Scientific name – Laterallus spilonota
- Spanish name – pachay
- Length – 15-16 centimeters (6 inches)
- Best islands to see them – San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Floreana, Santiago, Pinta, Isabela. Extinct on Baltra.
- Breeding / nesting season – September-April
Painted-billed Crake is indigenous to Galapagos, living and breeding in these islands but not unique to them and most likely a recent arrival. This shy bird is slightly larger than the Galapagos Rail. It has dark grey plumage and may be chestnut brown on the back. It has a red-based yellow bill and red legs. In Galapagos, Paint-billed Crake prefers the dense undergrowth of moist forests, especially in the highlands and farming areas. Its diet consists primarily of insects.
- Scientific name – Neocrex erythrops
- Spanish name – gallareta
- Length – 20 centimeters (8 inches)
- Best islands to see them – San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Floreana, Isabela (Alcedo Volcano)
- Breeding / nesting season – December-May
Sitting atop a tree or soaring overhead, you may see a large, dark-colored bird with broad wings. This is the Galapagos Hawk, an endemic raptor of these islands. Its bill is dark and the feet are yellow. The grey-brown tail has nine dark bands. Galapagos Hawk are seen from the coastal regions to the arid highlands. It is a daytime raptor, hunting small mammals, lizards (including marine iguanas) and birds. Breeding is polyandrous, with females having five to eight mates. Threats include unavailability of food, and possibly pesticides used in feral mammal control.
- Scientific name – Buteo galapagoensis
- Spanish name – gavilán de Galápagos
- Length – 56 centimeters (22 inches), wingspan 120 centimeters (47 inches)
- Best islands to see them – Santa Fe, Española, Santiago, Marchena, Pinta, Isabela. Extinct on Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, Floreana, Baltra.
- Breeding / nesting season – Breeding: August
Galapagos Short-eared Owl
Galapagos Short-eared Owl is one of two endemic owls in the islands. A cousin to short-eared owls on other continents, this subspecies is smaller and darker, evolving to fit its volcanic environment. It is dark brown, mottled with darker brown and tan. Its face is ringed with white, and topped with small ear tufts. It has yellow eyes. Females are slightly larger than males. Galapagos Short-eared owl preys on rats, lizards and birds. It is a daytime hunter, except on islands where the Galapagos Hawk is also present; then this owl feeds at night. It prefers open grasslands and lava flows. This owl builds its nests under shrubs. The most serious threat is introduced rats that eat the eggs.
- Scientific name – Asio flammeus galapagoensis
- Spanish name – lechuza de campo
- Length – 40 centimeters (16 inches), wingspan 85-100 centimeters (33-39 inches)
- Best islands to see them – present on all the main islands, except Wolf
- Breeding / nesting season – cool, dry season (June-November)
Galapagos Barn Owl
Galapagos Barn Owl is another endemic owl to these islands. It is pale golden-brown, with darker patches on the head and back. The upper wing is speckled with black. It has a distinguishing, heart-shaped, white ring around the face. Galapagos Barn Owl hunts rodents and insects from dusk to dawn. During the day, it may be found roosting in buildings or lava tunnels. It hunts over sparsely vegetated areas.
- Scientific name – Tyto alba punctatissima
- Spanish name – lechuza de campanario
- Length – 26 centimeters (10 inches), wingspan 68 centimeters (27 inches)
- Best islands to see them – San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Santiago, Isabela, Fernandina
- Breeding / nesting season – year-round, though mostly in the wet, warm season (December-May)
Migrants to the Galapagos
Six species of birds call the Galapagos home during the Northern Hemisphere’s winter (November-March). Most commonly seen on Santa Cruz Island are Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon), Common Nighthawk (Chordeiles minor) and Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica). Raptors include Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) and Osprey (Pandion haliaetus), which also frequents Isabela Island.
Bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus) has two vacation periods in the Galapagos, between July and August and between October and December. It has been seen on Genovesa, Española, Santiago, Floreana, San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Pinta and Bartolome islands.
And then there are the Introduced Species
Not all birds you’ll see on the main islands are native to Galapagos. Two frequently spotted species are the Smooth-billed Ani and the Cattle Egret. Smooth-billed Ani (Crotophaga ani, garrapatero) was introduced in the 1960s to control ticks on local cattle. It is a medium-sized bird (30-36 centimeters / 12-14 inches long) with iridescent black plumage, long tail and blade-like beak. Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis, garza bueyera), a native of Africa, has a totally different history. For centuries, this species has been migrating slowly around the globe, arriving in the Americas in 1800s and to the Galapagos in the mid-1960s. It is a small, white heron that is half-meter (1.7 feet) long with a meter-wide (three-foot) wingspan. Feathers on the head, chest and lower back are buff colored.
Check out Part 1 of this series on Galapagos land birds to see what other feathered you’ll see on during your hikes on the islands. Also check out what seabirds, shorebirds, reptiles and mammals you’ll come across during your Galapagos adventure.
Photo credit: Remco Tack