Hakai Magazine

The blue-footed booby may seem comical on land, but it has a sinister side. Photo by David Fettes/Corbis
The blue-footed booby may seem comical on land, but it has a sinister side. Photo by David Fettes/Corbis

Hugh and the Boobies

Like characters in a soap opera, boobies on a remote Mexican island cheat, kill, and jostle for power. One devoted researcher has been there to witness the antics—making some surprising realizations about our own behavior along the way.

Authored by

by Erik Vance

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In 1970, Hugh Drummond stepped on a plane for a voyage that would change his life. Twenty-four years old, he had recently finished his studies to become a solicitor in the British courts and seemed destined to lead a quiet existence of offices, paperwork, and perhaps a neatly trimmed garden. But before he settled in, he wanted to see the world. He set out for Mexico and, after that, Thailand, and then wherever the winds of fortune took him.

In the end, he never made it past Mexico. He immediately fell in love with its rugged beauty and vibrant culture. Raised in a bleak post-war Britain, he was dazzled by the country’s wild jungles, mountains, rivers, and especially its wildlife. He abandoned his plans for Asia or ever returning to Britain, thus beginning a lifelong love affair with his adopted country.

Forty-five years later, Drummond is one of Mexico’s most respected scientists and among the world’s top animal ecologists studying behavior. His life’s work with a bizarre seabird called the blue-footed booby on a tiny island off the Pacific coast has created an unparalleled behavioral database. His specialty is the terrible things they do to each other, especially the cruel, often downright homicidal behavior between siblings.

Thirty-five years of unbroken observations of fighting, cheating, and murder has shown him that animal behavior is tied to a complex tapestry of factors like weather, food availability, and each creature’s particular strategy for survival. And as he came to understand the motivations of squabbling birds on a lonely Pacific island, he gleaned hints about our own behavior and what it means to be human.

Upon meeting Drummond one is struck by his overwhelming Britishness. Indeed, at first blush he exudes a certain quality of upper class Victorian England. One could easily imagine his thick mustache and equally thick eyebrows under the pith helmet of a gentleman adventurer in an Indian tent inspecting maps or drinking tea. Meanwhile, his unblinking stare seems appropriate for a schoolmaster straight out of an ivy-draped preparatory school.

But as soon as he speaks, the mirage disappears. “I think I’m very English,” he says at the comparison, “but certainly not from that end of the social status.”

In fact, Drummond—the son of a London cop—has no time for pretension. Rather, he has the delightful demeanor of a man who has spent long months isolated from the world, contemplating life’s deepest questions. He’s quick to look at the bigger picture and even quicker to laugh.

And it makes sense. As a young man, he spent his first few years in Mexico rafting rivers, hiking mountains, and exploring jungles. “I was dipping in here and there and enjoying things but not actually achieving anything by it,” he says. He wanted “to do something where I was more genuinely engaged with the environment rather than being a sort of voyeur or opportunist.”

He especially loved wildlife and, inspired by naturalists like Jane Goodall and Konrad Lorenz, he decided to study behavioral ecology—known at the time as ethology—and acquired a PhD from the University of Tennessee. In many ways, he says, an animal’s behavior is like its physical traits. Just as a pigeon may be whiter or more dappled than its fellows, it can also be more aggressive or mild. Behaviorists might use a vague term like “individual behavioral phenotype,” but most people call it what it is—animal personality.

In 1980, Drummond—by then a young professor—was searching for a place to study these ideas that would combine his love of science with his love of the outdoors. He found Isla Isabel, an island about 30 kilometers off the Pacific coast, southeast of the Baja Peninsula.

“It was an incredible place because of all the wildlife and because of the remoteness. You don’t often go to many places that feel that remote,” he says. “You couldn’t reach anyone and they couldn’t reach you.”

Isla Isabel doesn’t look like much from the sky—a scrubby rock about the size of a college campus with no people beyond a fishing camp on the leeward side. The soil sustains only a handful of weedy and stunted trees. There’s one pond on the island and a lot of bare rock that smells profoundly of bird dung.

But for Drummond, it was a land of endless delights, more for what was above the land than what was on it. Gulls and seabirds of all types swirled around the island.

He describes the first time he saw sooty terns return from months at sea in a flock that was visible for days before it landed: “You are on that windswept shore of the island and you have that mass of birds, all this wheeling on the air and screaming. And you know they’ve been out over blue water forever,” he says, relishing the memory. “I’m not mystical at all—but it’s the sort of moment in which I feel I could verge on the mystical.”

At night, after a long day in the field, he and his students would cook fresh fish under the sprawling skies—kings of their tiny empire. Drummond was hooked. He soon became fascinated with the island’s boobies, which return to the same area to breed every year. The booby is a long-winged seabird, comically ungainly when it takes off, lands, and walks on the ground. But on the wing or diving into clear blue water, they are sublime.

They’re also complete jerks at home.

Their flamboyant courtship begins innocently—all outstretched wings and flopping blue feet, like aerobics instructors gone mad. But soon the booby nest turns into a bad Mexican soap opera. Parents relentlessly cheat on each other and kill babies that wander into their territory while their young mercilessly peck each other to death.

It turned out boobies were the perfect research animal for Drummond. They nest on the ground and the sparse vegetation makes observation easy. They are relatively simple to catch and tolerate researchers sitting nearby. So Drummond settled into a professorship at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City and began compiling data on the peccadilloes of the boobies of Isla Isabel.

When it comes to survival, it’s no surprise that animals are selfish. Charity doesn’t feed your young or protect them from predators. But what is interesting is the way in which an animal is selfish. And even more interesting are the clues we can gain from a creature about evolution generally—including our own.

Drummond was especially interested in competition between blue-footed booby siblings (they often have two to a nest). Like the biblical Cain assaulting Abel, the older chick sometimes pecks the younger to death. That is, unless the younger accepts a submissive role, in which case it has a good chance of surviving to adulthood. So Drummond and his students started swapping chicks between nests. When dominant chicks were paired with subordinates from other nests, their roles continued as before. When subordinates were paired, they just crouched peacefully next to each other, both likely hoping not to get pecked by this new roommate.

But when dominant birds were paired together, epic battles erupted, with both sides unwilling to back down, despite size differences or repeated pummeling. Drummond realized that blue-footed booby chicks learn their roles early. Parents assist by often giving the elder a several-day head start before laying a second egg. Thus, the older, more aggressive chick gets the lion’s share of the food, the younger gets to live (most of the time) and eventually thrive, and the parents get to have multiple surviving offspring.

As long as the younger chick knows its place, everyone wins (though Drummond has found that several years later the children of younger chicks are a little undersized—the only known example in the animal world of a cost like this being passed to the next generation). He says this is part of an elaborate and competitive game found across the animal kingdom in which each player is using the strategy that best advances its position.

The blue-footed booby family unit is not always harmonious—chicks can become violent as they battle for dominance. Photo by Tui De Roy/Minden Pictures/Corbis

“Some level of sibling competition is very, very widespread. If there are resources for siblings to compete for then expect them to be competing,” he says.

Now take blue-footed boobies’ cousins, brown boobies, who share the island. Browns are similarly goofy, philandering ground nesters that lay one or two eggs per pair. But the rules for the browns are far more severe—the older sibling almost always kills the younger. They’re similar birds with the same pressures as their cousins yet their strategy is radically different. Why the gruesome biblical tragedy played over again and again?

Drummond found that the deck is stacked against a younger brown booby chick from the start—it hatches several days later than its sibling. It may be that the younger chick only exists as a sort of backup baby, in case the older one dies in the egg.

But Drummond thinks there is a more nuanced answer. When he did the same sibling-swapping experiment with the brown boobies, he found that younger birds (the Abels) fought like mad to survive, regardless of the other bird’s rank. He says that with desperate circumstances working against them, they have no choice but to fight with everything they have. The result is what he calls the “desperado hypothesis,” a Hail Mary strategy in which perhaps one in 100 Abels will kill its Cain and survive. These “superboobies” triumph just often enough that their pugnacious behavior is ingrained in the species.

The years have ticked by and Drummond, 68, continues to go to Isla Isabel. Every February, like clockwork, he and the latest crop of young scientists catch a ride with the Mexican Navy to the island. They sleep in tents, eat fish, snorkel in the bay, and watch the birds for months at a time.

“He’s got 30 years of intensive field work where he’s gone out every single year to collect data. I think that is probably the best database in the world,” says Regina Macedo, a Brazilian researcher and president of the Animal Behavior Society.

Animal ecologist Hugh Drummond has devoted his working life to understanding the behavioral complexities of brown and blue-footed boobies on a remote Pacific island. Photo courtesy of Hugh Drummond

Over that time, Drummond has published dozens of papers and reviews on animal behavior, some comparing boobies to other animals. It’s a compelling lens to turn on various creatures, and even ourselves. Boobies don’t think or reason like humans do but that doesn’t mean their experience is alien to us.

“The booby brain is a sort of computational organ,” Drummond says. “I would put my money on them having rudimentary emotional experience and rudimentary thoughts. But not moral thoughts.”

Humans may have urges and processes deep in our brains similar to boobies. But in us, those are counteracted by social shaping and higher reasoning that keep civilization from descending into sex-crazed bedlam, for example, and that allow human children to suppress harmful booby-like competitive impulses.

“You’re kidding yourself if you think boobies can predict human behavior,” says Robyn Hudson, a researcher who studies animal behavior at UNAM alongside Drummond. “But you’re kidding yourself if you’re sure they don’t.”

Drummond cautions that it’s easy to read too much into animal behavior. But it’s hard not to see parallels between humans and boobies, blue footed or brown.

“If you watch a pair of human siblings and a pair of boobies you might say, ‘Well, I can’t see anything similar,’” Drummond says over lunch one sunny afternoon on the UNAM campus. “But I think the fundamental thing is similar in the two [species]—and that’s what’s behind the major emotions that one experiences.”

He says that human siblings blend competition and conflict with deep love and a willingness to sacrifice—just as dominant blue-footed boobies combine aggression with constraint. Scholars often look at the story of Cain and Abel as an early allegory for man’s departure from his beastlike past. Perhaps that’s even truer than the original authors knew. Bring up the idea of a booby Cain and Abel and Drummond rolls his eyes. Like most scientists, he avoids anthropomorphic analogies, yet admits with a sly smile that his own brother pecked him frequently.

In recent years, due in part to lingering injuries from a mountaineering accident in his 20s, Drummond has given up extreme sports like mountain biking and rafting. He can’t spend as much time in the sun as he once did and he’s successfully beaten cancer. Yet he still goes to Isla Isabel every year to watch the boobies.

And it’s been worth it. Few people have amassed such a detailed glimpse into the behavioral life of a single animal. He’s written dozens of papers and several book chapters, trained generations of Mexican researchers, and dug into some of the most fundamental questions of nature. And he’s never questioned his decision to get on that plane 45 years ago.

“You’ve got several decades before you die,” he says, as students hustle by the restaurant on their way to class. “The idea of staying in a solicitor’s office—getting on these bloody buses—versus going off around the world.” He pauses for a moment. “I didn’t want to get to [the end of my life] and think I’ve screwed it up. That I haven’t lived my life.”

Hugh Drummond veered from the flock he was born to. Instead, he has dedicated his days to observing amusing creatures, bound to an ancient script of dancing, breeding, cheating, and jostling for survival. And at his island laboratory, the whirligig of time, nature, evolution, and science spins madly on.