At a Glance

Famous as a long-distance champion: some Arctic Terns may migrate farther than any other birds, going from the high Arctic to the Antarctic. Breeds on coasts and tundra from New England, Washington, and Britain north to the northernmost limits of land, and spends the rest of the year at sea. Its migrations take it to every ocean, and to the vicinity of every continent. In North America, seldom seen from land south of its breeding grounds.
Gull-like Birds, Gulls and Terns
Low Concern
Coasts and Shorelines, Lakes, Ponds, and Rivers, Open Ocean, Saltwater Wetlands, Tundra and Boreal Habitats
Alaska and The North, California, Eastern Canada, Florida, Mid Atlantic, New England, Northwest, Southeast, Western Canada
Direct Flight, Hovering, Swooping

Range & Identification

Migration & Range Maps

Most migration is offshore. In spring migration, some may move up the St. Lawrence River and then fly overland to James Bay and Hudson Bay; others may come overland from farther south on Atlantic Coast, but very few records inland in spring. Strays found in the interior in fall are mostly young birds.


15 1/2" (39 cm). W. 31 (79 cm). Longer-tailed and smaller-headed than Common Tern, with narrower black edge on underside of wing; quite gray below, with white stripe on face. Relatively short-legged. Bill solid red in summer. Upperside of wingtip uniformly gray, without darker area of Common Tern.
About the size of a Crow
Black, Gray, Red, White
Wing Shape
Long, Narrow, Pointed, Swept, Tapered
Tail Shape
Forked, Long, Notched

Songs and Calls

Harsh tee-ar or kip-kip-kip-tee-ar, higher pitched than call of Common Tern.
Call Pattern
Falling, Flat
Call Type
Rattle, Raucous, Scream


Open ocean, rocky coasts, islands; in summer, also tundra lakes. At sea for most of year, in wide variety of situations, but seems to spend most time over cold waters and well offshore. Nests on islands, gravel beaches, coastal tundra; also far inland around lakes, rivers, ponds in tundra regions.



1-3. Buff to pale olive, blotched with black and brown. Incubation is by both parents, 20-24 days. Parents are vigorous in defense of nest, will dive at and strike intruders.


Leave nest 1-3 days after hatching, find place to hide nearby. Both parents bring food for young. Age at first flight 21-28 days; young remain with parents another 1-2 months.

Feeding Behavior

Forages mostly by flying slowly upwind, hovering briefly, then plunging to catch prey below water's surface. Sometimes dips down in flight to take items from surface, or chases flying insects in the air. Despite its small size, may steal food from other birds, swooping at them to startle them into dropping their catch.


Fish, crustaceans, insects. Diet varies with season and location; mostly small fish and crustaceans, also many insects in summer on breeding grounds. Also known to eat mollusks, marine worms, earthworms, rarely berries.


Usually first breeds at age of 3-4 years. Nests in colonies, sometimes with other terns. Much of courtship is aerial, with groups and pairs performing high flights. Male may fly over colony carrying fish, wings beating high above back. On ground, pair of birds posture, bow, strut in circles; male presents fish to female. Nest site is on ground in the open. Nest (built by both sexes) is a shallow scrape, usually lined with a few bits of plant material, debris.

Climate Vulnerability

Conservation Status

Steadily declining at southern end of breeding range on Atlantic Coast. Elsewhere no obvious trend. Most of very extensive range is remote from effects of human activities.

Climate Map

Audubon’s scientists have used 140 million bird observations and sophisticated climate models to project how climate change will affect the range of the Arctic Tern. Learn even more in our Audubon’s Survival By Degrees project.

Climate Threats Facing the Arctic Tern

Choose a temperature scenario below to see which threats will affect this species as warming increases. The same climate change-driven threats that put birds at risk will affect other wildlife and people, too.

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