Common Tern Habitat | Call | Migration | Diet

Common tern

The common tern, scientific name Sterna hirundo is a seabird within the Laridae family. The common tern has a circumpolar distribution, its 4 subspecies breeding in temperate and subarctic areas of Europe, Asia and North America.

The common tern is strongly migratory, wintering in coastal tropical and subtropical areas. Breeding adults have mild grey upperparts, white to very mild grey underparts, a black cap, orange-red legs, and a slim pointed bill.

Relying on the subspecies, the common tern bill could also be principally pink with a black tip or all black.

There are a variety of comparable common tern species, together with the partly sympatric Arctic tern, which might be separated on plumage particulars, leg and bill colour, or vocalisations.

Breeding in a wider variety of habitats than any of family of the tern, the common tern nests on any flat, poorly vegetated floor near water, together with seashores and islands, and it readily adapts to synthetic substrates resembling floating rafts.

The common tern nest could also be a naked scrape in sand or gravel, however, it’s typically lined or edged with no matter particles is out there.

As much as three eggs could also be laid, their uninteresting colours and blotchy patterns offering camouflage on the open seashore.

Incubation of the common tern is by each sex, and the eggs hatch in round 21–22 days, longer if the colony is disturbed by predators.

The downy chicks fledge in 22–28 days. Like most terns, this species feeds by plunge-diving for fish, both within the sea or in freshwater, however, molluscs, crustaceans and different invertebrate prey might be kind a big a part of the weight loss plan in some areas.

Eggs and younger are weak to predation by mammals resembling rats and American mink, and huge birds together with gulls, owls and herons.

Frequent terns could also be contaminated by lice, parasitic worms, and mites, though blood parasites seem uncommon.

Its massive inhabitants and big breeding very imply that this species is classed as being of least concern, though numbers in North America have declined sharply in current many years.

Regardless of worldwide laws defending the common tern, in some areas populations are threatened by habitat loss, air pollution or the disturbance of breeding colonies.


The nominate subspecies of the common tern is 31–35 cm (12–14 in) lengthy, together with a 6–9 cm (2.4–3.5 in) fork within the tail, with a 77–98 cm (30–39 in) wingspan. It weighs 110–141 g (3.9–5.Zero oz).

Breeding adults have pale grey upperparts, very pale grey underparts, a black cap, orange-red legs, and a slim pointed bill that may be principally pink with a black tip, or all black, relying on the subspecies.

The common tern’s upper wings are pale grey, however, because the summertime wears on, the darkish feather shafts of the outer flight feathers turn into uncovered, and a grey wedge seems on the wings.

The rump and tail are white, and on a standing bird, the lengthy tail extends no additional than the folded wingtips, not like the Arctic and roseate terns during which the tail protrudes past the wings. There are not any vital variations between the sexes.

In non-breeding adults the brow and underparts turn into white, the bill is all black or black with a pink base, and the legs are darkish pink or black.

The upper wings have an apparent darkish space on the entrance fringe of the wing, the carpal bar.

Terns that haven’t bred efficiently might begin moulting into non-breeding grownup plumage from June, however late July is extra typical, with the moult suspended throughout the migration.

There’s additionally some geographical variation, Californian birds typically being in non-breeding plumage throughout the migration.

Juvenile common tern has pale grey upper wings with a darkish carpal bar. The crown and nape are brown, and the brow is ginger, carrying to white by autumn.

The upper parts are ginger with brown and white scaling, and the tail lacks the grownup’s lengthy outer feathers.

Birds of their first post-juvenile plumage, which usually stay of their wintering areas, resemble the non-breeding grownup, however, have a duskier crown, darkish carpal bar, and sometimes very worn plumage.

By their second yr, most younger terns are both indistinguishable from adults or present solely minor variations resembling a darker bill or white brow.

The common tern is an agile flyer, able to fast turns and swoops, hovering, and vertical take-off.

When commuting with fish, it flies near the floor in a robust headwind, however, 10–30 m (33–98 ft) above the water in the following wind.

Except migrating, usually, it stays beneath 100 m (330 ft), and averages 30 km/h (19 mph) within the absence of a tailwind.

Its common flight pace in the course of the nocturnal migration flight is 43–54 km/h (27–34 mph)[21] at a top of 1,000–3,000 m (3,300–9,800 ft).


The juvenile begins moulting into grownup plumage in its first October; the pinnacle, tail and physique plumage is changed first, principally by February, then the wing feathers.

The primaries are changed in phases; the innermost feathers moult first, then substitute is suspended in the course of the southern winter (birds of this age staying of their wintering areas) and recommences within the autumn.

In Might to June of the second year, an analogous moult sequence begins, with a pause throughout major moult for birds that return north, however not for those who keep within the winter quarters.

A significant moult to grownup breeding plumage happens within the subsequent February to June, between 40–90% of feathers being changed. Previous major feathers put on away to disclose the blackish barbs beneath.

The moult sample implies that the oldest feathers are these nearest the centre of the wing, in order the northern summer progresses, a darkish wedge seems on the wing as a consequence of this feather ageing course.


The common tern has a large repertoire of calls, which have a decrease pitch than the equal calls of Arctic terns.

Probably the most distinctive sound is the alarm KEE-yah, careworn on the primary syllable, in distinction to the second-syllable stress of the Arctic tern.

The alarm name doubles up as a warning to intruders, though severe threats evoke a kyar, given as a tern takes flight, and quietens the normally noisy colony whereas its residents assess the hazard.

A down-slurred keeur is given when a grownup is approaching the nest whereas carrying a fish and is presumably used for particular person recognition (chicks emerge from hiding once they hear their mother and father giving this name).

One other common tern name is a kip uttered throughout social contact. Different vocalizations embrace a kakakakaka when attacking intruders, and a staccato kek-kek-kek from preventing males.

Dad and mom and chicks can find each other by name, and siblings additionally recognise one another’s vocalisations in regards to the twelfth day from hatching, which helps to maintain the brood collectively.

Distribution and habitat

Most populations of the common tern are strongly migratory, wintering south of their temperate and subarctic Northern Hemisphere breeding ranges.

First summertime birds normally stay of their wintering quarters, though a couple of return to breeding colonies a while after the arrival of the adults.

In North America, the common tern breeds alongside the Atlantic coast from Labrador to North Carolina, and inland all through a lot of Canada east of the Rocky Mountains.

In the USA, some breeding populations can be discovered within the states bordering the Great Lakes, and regionally on the Gulf coast.

There are small, solely partially migratory, colonies within the Caribbean; these are in The Bahamas and Cuba, and off Venezuela within the Los Roques and Las Aves archipelagos.

The common tern breeds throughout most of Europe, with the best numbers within the north and east of the continent.

There are small populations on the north African coast, and within the Azores, the Canary Islands and Madeira.

Most winter off western or southern Africa, birds from the south and west of Europe tending to remain north of the equator and different European birds transferring additional south.

The breeding vary continues throughout the temperate and taiga zones of Asia, with scattered outposts on the Persian Gulf and the coast of Iran.

Common tern


The common tern breeds in colonies that don’t usually exceed 2,000 pairs,[44] however might often quantity greater than 20,000 pairs.

Colonies inland are usually smaller than on the coast. Frequent terns typically nest alongside different coastal species, resembling the Arctic, roseate and Sandwich terns, black-headed gulls, and black skimmers.

Particularly within the early part of the breeding season, for no identified purpose, most of the entire terns will fly in silence low and quick out to sea. This phenomenon is named a “dread”.

This autumn juvenile in Massachusetts has a white brow, having misplaced the ginger colouration attribute of youthful birds

On their return to the breeding websites, the terns might loiter for a couple of days earlier than settling right into a territory, and the precise beginning of nesting could also be linked to excessive availability of fish.

Terns defend solely a small space, with distances between nests generally being as little as 50 cm (20 in), though 150–350 cm (59–138 in) is extra typical.

As with many birds, the identical web site is re-used yr after yr, with a document of 1 pair returning for 17 successive breeding seasons. Around 90% of skilled birds reuse their former territory, so younger birds should nest on the periphery, discover a bereaved mate, or transfer to a different colony.

A male selects a nesting territory a couple of days after his arrival within the spring and is joined by his earlier companion until she is greater than 5 days late, during which case the pair might separate.

The defence of the territory is especially by the male, who repels intruders of both intercourses. He offers an alarm name, opens his wings, raises his tail and bows his head to indicate the black cap.

If the intruder persists, the male stops calling and fights by bill grappling till the intruder submits by elevating its head to reveal the throat.

Aerial trespassers are merely attacked, generally following a joint upward spiralling flight.

Regardless of the aggression proven to adults, wandering chicks are normally tolerated, whereas in a gull colony they might be attacked and killed.

The nest is defended till the chicks have fledged, and all of the adults within the colony will collectively repel potential predators.


Pairs are established or confirmed by way of aerial courtship shows during which a male and a feminine fly in broad circles as much as 200 m (660 ft) or extra, calling all of the whereas, earlier than the 2 birds descend collectively in zigzag glides.

If the male is carrying a fish, he might entice the eye of different males too. On the bottom, the male courts the feminine by circling her together with his tail and neck raised, head pointing down, and wings partially open.

If she responds, they might each undertake a posture with the pinnacle pointed skywards.

The male might tease a feminine with the fish, not parting together with his providing until she has exhibited to him sufficiently.

As soon as a courtship is full, the male makes a shallow melancholy within the sand, and the feminine scratches in the identical place.

A number of trials might happen until the pair choose a web site for the precise nest. The eggs could also be laid on the naked sand, gravel or soil, however a lining of particles or vegetation is commonly added if out there, or the nest could also be rimmed with seaweed, stones or shells.

The saucer-shaped scrape is usually Four cm (1.6 in) deep and 10 cm (3.9 in) throughout, however, might prolong to as a lot as 24 cm (9.Four in) broad together with the encompassing ornamental materials.

Breeding success in areas liable to flooding has been enhanced by the supply of synthetic mats created from eelgrass, which encourage the terns to nest in larger, much less weak areas since many choose the mats to reveal sand.

The common tern tends to make use of extra nest materials than roseate or Arctic terns, though roseate typically nests in areas with extra rising vegetation.

Terns are professional at finding their nests in a big colony. Eggs are accepted if reshaped with plasticine or coloured yellow (however not pink or blue).

This capability to find the eggs is an adaptation to life in an unstable, wind-blown and tidal setting.

The height time for egg manufacturing is early Might, with some birds, significantly first-time breeders, laying later within the month or in June.

The clutch measurement is generally three eggs; bigger clutches most likely end result from two females laying in the identical nest.

Egg measurement averages 41 mm × 31 mm (1.6 in × 1.2 in), though every successive egg in a clutch is barely smaller than the primary laid.

The common egg weight is 20.2 g (0.71 oz), of which 5% is the shell.

The egg weight will depend on how well-fed the feminine is, in addition to on its place within the clutch.

The eggs are cream, buff, or pale brown, marked with streaks, spots or blotches of black, brown or grey which assist to camouflage them.

Incubation is by each sex, though extra typically by the feminine, and lasts 21–22 day. Besides when the colony suffers a catastrophe, 90% of the eggs hatch.

The precocial downy chick is yellowish with black or brown markings,[70] and just like the eggs, is much like the equal stage of the Arctic tern.

The chicks fledge in 22–28 days, normally 25–26. Fledged juveniles are fed on the nest for about 5 days, after which accompany the adults on fishing expeditions.

The younger birds might obtain supplementary feeds from the mother and father till the tip of the breeding season, and past.

Frequent terns have been recorded feeding their offspring on migration and within the wintering grounds, a minimum of till the adults transfer additional south in about December.

Like many terns, this species could be very defensive of its nest and young and can harass people, canine, muskrats and most diurnal birds, however not like the extra aggressive Arctic tern, it not often hits the intruder, normally swerving off on the final second. Adults can discriminate between particular person people, attacking acquainted folks extra intensely than strangers.

Nocturnal predators don’t elicit comparable assaults; colonies might be worn out by rats, and adults desert the colony for as much as eight hours when great horned owls are current.

Frequent terns normally breed annually. Second clutches are attainable if the primary is misplaced.

Not often, a second clutch could also be laid and incubated whereas some chicks from the primary clutch are nonetheless being fed.

The primary breeding try is normally at 4 years of age, generally at three years. The common variety of younger per pair surviving to fledge can range from zero within the occasion of the colony being flooded to over 2.5 in a superb yr.

The utmost documented lifespan within the wild is 23 years in North America and 33 years in Europe, however, 12 years is an extra typical lifespan.

Meals and feeding

Like all Sterna terns, the common tern feeds by plunge-diving for fish, from a top of 1–6 m (3.3–19.7 ft), both within the sea or in freshwater lakes and huge rivers.

The chook might submerge for a second or so, however to not more than 50 cm (20 in) beneath the floor.

When in search of fish, this tern flies head-down and with its bill held vertically.

It might circle or hover earlier than diving, after which plunges instantly into the water, whereas the Arctic tern favours a “stepped-hover” method, and the roseate tern dives at pace from a higher top, and submerges for longer.

Terns have pink oil droplets within the cone cells of the retinas of their eyes. This improves distinction and sharpens distance imaginative and prescient, particularly in hazy situations.

The common tern preferentially hunts fish 5–15 cm (2.0–5.9 in) lengthy.

The species caught depend upon what is out there, but when there’s a selection, terns feeding a number of chicks will take bigger prey than these with smaller broods.

The proportion of fish fed to chicks could also be as excessive as 95% in some areas, however invertebrate prey might kind a big a part of the weight loss plan elsewhere.

This may increasingly embrace worms, leeches, molluscs resembling small squid, and crustaceans (prawns, shrimp and mole crabs).

In freshwater areas, massive bugs could also be caught, resembling beetles, cockchafers and moths. Grownup bugs could also be caught within the air, and larvae picked from the bottom or from the water floor.

Prey is caught within the bill and both swallowed head-first or carried again to the chicks. Sometimes, two or extra small fish could also be carried concurrently.

When adults take meals again to the nest, they recognise their younger by name, fairly than visible identification.

Fishbones and the exhausting exoskeletons of crustaceans or bugs are regurgitated as pellets.

Adults fly off the nest to defecate, and even small chicks stroll a brief distance from the scrape to deposit their faeces.

Adults attacking animals or people will typically defecate as they dive, typically efficiently fouling the intruder.

Predators and parasites

Rats will take tern eggs, and should even retailer massive numbers in caches, and the American mink is a crucial predator of hatched chicks, each in North America, and in Scotland the place it has been launched.

The pink fox can be an area downside. As a result of common terns nest on islands, the commonest predators are usually different birds fairly than mammals.

The ruddy turnstone will take eggs from unattended nests, and gulls might take chicks.

Great horned owls and short-eared owls will kill each adult and chicks, and black-crowned night time herons may also eat small chicks.

Merlins and peregrine falcons might assault flying terns; as with different birds, it appears seemingly that one benefit of flocking behaviour is to confuse fast-flying predators.

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The common tern is classed as the least concern on the IUCN Crimson Listing.

It has a big inhabitants of 1,600,000–4,600,000 mature people and an enormous breeding very estimated at 29,200,000 km2 (11,300,000 sq mi).

Breeding numbers have been estimated at 250,000–500,000 pairs, the bulk breeding in Asia. As much as 140,000 pairs breed in Europe.

Fewer than 80,000 pairs breed in North America, with most breeding on the northeast Atlantic coast and declining inhabitants of lower than 10,000 pairs breeding within the Great Lakes area.

Threats come from habitat loss by way of construction, air pollution or vegetation development, or disturbance of breeding birds by people, automobiles, boats or canine.

Native pure flooding might result in nest losses, and a few colonies are weak to predation by rats and huge gulls.

Gulls additionally compete with terns for nest websites. Some birds are hunted within the Caribbean for business sale as meals.

Breeding success could also be enhanced by way of floating nest rafts, man-made islands or different synthetic nest websites, and by stopping human disturbance.

Overgrown vegetation could also be burned to clear the bottom, and gulls might be killed or discouraged by deliberate disturbance.

Contamination with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) resulted in enhanced ranges of feminisation in male embryos, which appeared to vanish previous to fledging, with no impact on colony productiveness, however, dichlorodiphenyldichloroethylene (DDE), which ends from the breakdown of DDT, led to very low ranges of profitable breeding in some US places.

The common tern is likely one of the species to which the Settlement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (AEWA) and the US-Canada Migratory Fowl Treaty Act of 1918 apply.

Events to the AWEA settlement are required to have interaction in a variety of conservation methods described in an in-depth motion plan.

The plan is meant to deal with key points resembling species and habitat conservation, administration of human actions, analysis, training, and implementation.

The North American laws are analogous, though there’s a higher emphasis on safety.

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