Photo: Johann Schumacher/Vireo

Priority Bird

Common Tern

Sterna hirundo

One of four very similar terns on this continent. The species lives up to its name as a "common" tern mainly in the northeast; over much of the continent, it is outnumbered by the similar Forster's Tern. Also widespread in the Old World.
Conservation status Northeastern populations probably much lower than they were historically. Numbers reduced by plume hunters in late 1800s, increased again with protection early in 20th century, then declined again as populations of predatory large gulls increased in that area. Coastal Common Terns are more and more concentrated in a few well-protected colonies. Some inland populations are declining as well.
Family Gulls and Terns
Habitat Lakes, ocean, bays, beaches. Wide range of aquatic habitats in summer, both coastal and inland waters in low-lying, open country, where shallow waters for fishing are close to undisturbed flat islands or beaches for nesting. Winters mostly along coastlines in warm subtropical or tropical waters.
One of four very similar terns on this continent. The species lives up to its name as a "common" tern mainly in the northeast; over much of the continent, it is outnumbered by the similar Forster's Tern. Also widespread in the Old World.
Photo Gallery
  • adult, breeding
  • immature (1st winter)
  • juvenile
  • adult, nonbreeding
  • adult, breeding
Feeding Behavior

Forages mostly by flying over water, hovering, and plunging to catch prey below surface. Sometimes dips down to take items from surface of water, or pursues flying insects in the air. Occasionally steals food from other terns.


Eggs

1-3. Variable, buff to pale blue or olive, marked with brown and black. Incubation is by both parents (female may do more), 21-25 days. Young: Leave nest after a few days but remain nearby, are fed by both parents. Age at first flight about 22-28 days; may remain with parents another 2 months or more. One brood per year, rarely two.


Young

Leave nest after a few days but remain nearby, are fed by both parents. Age at first flight about 22-28 days; may remain with parents another 2 months or more. One brood per year, rarely two.

Diet

Mostly fish. Feeds on a wide variety of small fish, focussing on whatever types most easily available, sometimes concentrating on shrimp instead. Also eats other crustaceans, insects, marine worms, small squid, leeches, marine worms.


Nesting

Usually first breeds at age 3-4 years. Nests in colonies, sometimes in isolated pairs. In aerial courtship, groups and pairs perform high flights. Male may fly over colony carrying fish; female follows. On ground, pair postures, bows, struts in circles; male presents fish to female. Nest site is on bare ground or surrounded by low vegetation; sometimes on floating mat of dead vegetation. Nest (built by both sexes) is shallow scrape in soil, usually lined with bits of plant material and debris.

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
Learn more about these drawings.

Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

Migration

After breeding, may move a short distance north before beginning southward migration. Almost none actually overwinters in North America, although fall migrants may linger to the beginning of January. Winter range is along tropical coasts as far south as Peru and Argentina. Stray Common Terns in Alaska are from a dark-billed race in eastern Asia.

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Migration

After breeding, may move a short distance north before beginning southward migration. Almost none actually overwinters in North America, although fall migrants may linger to the beginning of January. Winter range is along tropical coasts as far south as Peru and Argentina. Stray Common Terns in Alaska are from a dark-billed race in eastern Asia.

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon
Songs and Calls
Kip-kip-kip; also tee-aar.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
Learn more about this sound collection.

How climate change could affect this bird's range

In the broadest and most detailed study of its kind, Audubon scientists have used hundreds of thousands of citizen-science observations and sophisticated climate models to predict how birds in the U.S. and Canada will react to climate change.

Learn more

Read more: climate.audubon.org
Gulls and Terns Gull-like Birds

Common Tern

The darker the color, the more favorable the climate conditions are for survival. The outlined areas represent approximate current range for each season.

More on reading these maps.

Each map is a visual guide to where a particular bird species may find the climate conditions it needs to survive in the future. We call this the bird’s “climatic range.”

The colors indicate the season in which the bird may find suitable conditions— blue for winter, yellow for summer (breeding), and green for where they overlap (indicating their presence year-round).

The darker the shaded area, the more likely it is the bird species will find suitable climate conditions to survive there.

The outline of the approximate current range for each season remains fixed in each frame, allowing you to compare how the range will expand, contract, or shift in the future.

The first frame of the animation shows where the bird can find a suitable climate today (based on data from 2000). The next three frames predict where this bird’s suitable climate may shift in the future—one frame each for 2020, 2050, and 2080.

You can play or pause the animation with the orange button in the lower left, or select an individual frame to study by clicking on its year.

The darker the color, the more favorable the climate conditions are for survival. The outlined areas represent approximate current range for each season. More on reading these maps.
Winter
Summer

Winter Range
Summer Range
Both Seasons
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