Photo: Elisabeth Noffsinger/Audubon Photography Awards

Royal Tern

Thalasseus maximus

Common along tropical and subtropical shores, the Royal Tern is a characteristic sight along the Gulf Coast and southern Atlantic Coast, less numerous in California. Aside from a few interior localities in Florida, it is almost never found inland except after hurricanes.
Conservation status Populations declined seriously in late 1800s - early 1900s when eggs were harvested from many colonies for food; made substantial comeback during 20th century. Still vulnerable to loss of nesting sites. Has declined in California since 1950, coinciding with decline in population of Pacific sardine there.
Family Gulls and Terns
Habitat Coasts, sandy beaches, salt bays. Favors warm coastal waters, especially those that are shallow and somewhat protected, as in bays, lagoons, estuaries. Also found well offshore at times, and travels freely between islands in the Caribbean. Usually nests on low-lying sandy islands.
Common along tropical and subtropical shores, the Royal Tern is a characteristic sight along the Gulf Coast and southern Atlantic Coast, less numerous in California. Aside from a few interior localities in Florida, it is almost never found inland except after hurricanes.
Photo Gallery
  • adult, breeding
  • adult, nonbreeding
  • juvenile, worn plumage
  • immature (1st winter)
  • adult, breeding
Feeding Behavior

Forages mostly by hovering over water and plunging to catch prey just below surface. Sometimes flies low, skimming water with bill; occasionally catches flying fish in the air, or dips to water's surface to pick up floating refuse. May steal food from other birds. Sometimes feeds at night.


Eggs

One, rarely two. Whitish to brown, blotched with reddish-brown. Incubation is by both sexes, 28-35 days, usually 30-31. Young: Within 2-3 days after hatching, young leaves nest and joins others in group called a "creche." Both parents bring food; parents and offspring are able to recognize each other by voice, so that adults feed only their own young. Age at first flight about 4-5 weeks. Young remain with parents for up to 8 months or more, migrating south with them.


Young

Within 2-3 days after hatching, young leaves nest and joins others in group called a "creche." Both parents bring food; parents and offspring are able to recognize each other by voice, so that adults feed only their own young. Age at first flight about 4-5 weeks. Young remain with parents for up to 8 months or more, migrating south with them.

Diet

Fish, crustaceans. Feeds mostly on small fish (up to 4" long, sometimes up to 7") and crustaceans, especially crabs. Eats wide variety of small fish, also shrimp, squid. Soft-shelled blue crabs are major items in diet on Atlantic Coast.


Nesting

Usually first breeds at age of 4 years. Nests in colonies. Courtship involves high spiraling flights by two or more birds. On ground, male presents food to female; both birds bow, strut in circles. Nest site is on ground (usually sandy) in the open. Nest (probably built by both sexes) is a shallow depression, with or without sparse lining of debris.

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
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Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

Migration

Present year-round in most of breeding range, scarcer northward in winter. On Atlantic Coast, some wander north of breeding range in late summer. In California, more common in winter than in summer. Some southward migration occurs, as the species reaches Ecuador and Argentina in winter.

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Migration

Present year-round in most of breeding range, scarcer northward in winter. On Atlantic Coast, some wander north of breeding range in late summer. In California, more common in winter than in summer. Some southward migration occurs, as the species reaches Ecuador and Argentina in winter.

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon
Songs and Calls
Harsh kee-rare, like Caspian Tern but higher pitched.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
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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

Royal 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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