Snatching Birds from Midair in Nauru

Eerie: Watching the Skies

NO, the above photo is not a scene from one of those “Alien” movies; the men are not worshiping something in the skies but are swinging something in their hands; and that black thing near the dark cloud is not a UFO but a bird — specifically, a frigatebird.

A Cure for Boredom

Captive: Frigatebirds being tamed inside a netted cage

Imagine life on a small phosphate rock island in the middle of the Pacific before the existence of planes, fast boats and the internet.  After hauling in the day’s catch from the ocean, there really wasn’t much to do. Visiting the next island would be nice but was very difficult if not impossible and it was simply irritating that certain creatures, such as the frigatebird, effortlessly do ‘island-hopping’ on a  regular basis.  And so the islanders devised a game to catch this enviable creature — a “catch a frigatebird contest”.

It so happens that frigatebirds have  large wingspans (the largest wingspan to body weight ratio of any bird) and thus are able to stay aloft for more than a week. They also tend to hover over their food (mostly fish) — a weakness that the islanders can exploit.  The challenge and excitement of catching a frigatebird attracted many islanders and, over time, better catching techniques were developed and some islanders became really good at it until it became a sporting event on the island.

A Vanishing Sport

Demo from a young islander: 1-Swing the abio around and around until it gathers momentum; 2:Release the leaded tip to wards the hovering bird

Bird snatching is a game of patience and skill. The frigatebirds are first lured to the beach by scattering pieces of fresh fish on the sand. Then, as a bird hovers over the food, the participants would capture it using what they call an abio, a lasso made of a long nylon string with a lead weight on one end. With the un-weighted tip of the long string neatly rolled around one hand, the weighted tip is swung around and around on the other until it gathered momentum. Then, at the exact moment when the frigate starts to hover, the string was suddenly released, sending the weight catapulting over the bird. The length of the released string was controlled such that once the string passes over the bird, the lead weight brings the weight below then over the bird tangling it with the string and thus allowing the islander to literally snatch the bird from midair.

Catching frigate birds is still considered a sport today but only two groups are left practicing this traditional pastime in Nauru. Both groups have 2 or 3 dozen tamed frigates (as many as three species) usually kept inside a netted cage by the beach.  I was lucky to have chanced upon one of the groups catching frigates one day when I was starting to get tired of driving aimlessly around the island.

Birds and Men: Excitement unfolds on a cloudy beach

Joining the Fun

Conniving Hosts: Tamed frigatebirds were released earlier in the afternoon

The Lure: Fresh fish were scattered on the beach. The tamed birds would snatch a piece of the food then fly away.

It was a cloudy afternoon when I found this group of ‘bird snatchers’. Darkness was starting to descend on the island but the sky was still bright below the clouds farther in the horizon. Rain had started to fall over a distant portion of the Pacific, magnifying the fading sunlight like a huge pillar of golden crystal that propped the heavy clouds against the stormy waters. The group stood on the rocky beach, heads turned towards the skies, talking almost in a whisper, and carefully scanning the endless space above them where a flock of big black birds soared and dove towards the beach from time to time.

The Target: A ‘guest’ is ushered by a tamed bird to the food set on the beach.

A Detained Guest: A man holds the captured bird while the lucky bird snatcher retrieves his abio.

Beach, Birds and Boys: Young islanders enjoy and afternoon dip under a perch of tamed frigatebirds.

Earlier in the afternoon, they released the tamed birds and fed them on the beach. The birds would snatch a piece of fresh fish then fly high up and far away from the beach. While in the air, other flocks of passing frigatebirds got attracted and joined the tamed birds back to the beach to partake on food set on the sand. The men scanned the skies to identify the  birds that didn’t belong among the dozens that soared above them and occasionally hovered  to snatch up food from the beach. They would instantly recognize an untamed bird because it doesn’t have a mark — a “hole” that showed in the frigate’s spread wings as it hovered. One “hole” was the mark of the group I was with; two “holes” was the mark of the group on the other side of the island; those without “holes” in their wings were the targets.

And then there was a sudden excitement. A flock had started to fly back towards us with some new recruits. The bird snatchers took positions around the scattered fish on the beach, some perching on rocks and pinnacles to get closer to the oncoming flock. The strings instantly, almost musically, chorused in a whizzing sound all around me as everyone swung the weighted tip of their lasso around and around, easing their legs and bodies to the right position, patiently waiting for the right timing. I had to keep a safe distance from the group as I focused my camera and took shots of the excitement knowing that a stray lead weight can cause a serious injury.

There was a sudden volley of whooshing sound as several of the bird snatchers released their lassos towards their targets. Many abios fell empty on the water but two birds landed on the ground with lasso strings entwined around their bodies. Amidst the excitement, younger boys rushed to the captured birds and adeptly caught the beaks and the wings as the successful bird snatchers disentangled their lassos. The newly caught birds were placed inside a cage to be marked and tamed and then to be used later on to lure other birds to the game.

The bird snatchers waited again for some time but the next batches of tamed frigate birds came home without guests. As the sky was getting darker, the tamed birds took positions for the night on their special perch by the beach. Tomorrow they will be fed again and some passersby will be attracted to join their feast and the group will be waiting on the beach once again to snatch the guest birds from midair. On some occasions however, the tamed birds decided to join the passersby to another feeding ground somewhere else and never came back to this beach. Such was life on the island.

As the bird snatchers started to leave towards their homes, a plane servicing the island took off from the nearby airstrip and thundered through the skies where the frigate birds hovered a while ago. People in that plane, islanders and visitors alike, were flying out to some place across the Pacific and, like the frigate birds, many will come back but others would never return.

To Stay or To Depart: A plane departs the island as the bird snatchers’ day ends.