|Conservation status||North American population has declined sharply since the 1960s. Loss of nesting habitat owing to drainage of wetlands is one likely cause. Runoff of farm chemicals into nesting marshes may affect hatching success. Loss of food supply on the wintering grounds, owing to local overfishing, may also be a factor.|
|Family||Gulls and Terns|
|Habitat||Fresh marshes, lakes; in migration, coastal waters. For nesting favors fresh waters with extensive marsh vegetation and open water, also sometimes in smaller marshes and wet meadows. In migration found on larger lakes and along coast. Winters in tropical coastal regions, mostly just offshore or around salt lagoons and estuaries.|
Forages in flight, dipping to surface of water or shore to pick up items, sometimes pursuing flying insects in the air, seldom plunging into water after prey.
2-4. Pale buff to olive, blotched with brown and black. Incubation is by both sexes, 21-22 days. Young: Develop rapidly; after 2-3 days, may leave nest but remain in vegetation nearby. Capable of flight 19-25 days after hatching; may be fed by parents for up to two more weeks. One brood per year, sometimes two in south.
Develop rapidly; after 2-3 days, may leave nest but remain in vegetation nearby. Capable of flight 19-25 days after hatching; may be fed by parents for up to two more weeks. One brood per year, sometimes two in south.
Mostly insects, fish. Diet on breeding grounds is mostly insects, also small fish, tadpoles, frogs, spiders, earthworms, crustaceans, leeches. In migration and winter at sea, eats mostly small fish, also some crustaceans and insects.
Breeds in scattered colonies, often associated with Forster's Terns. Early in season, pairs or small groups ascend in spiraling high flight above colony, then glide down. Nest site is low in marsh, on floating mat of plant material, on old muskrat house or debris, or on ground close to water. Nest (built by both parents) may be substantial platform of marsh plants, or simple depression with a few bits of vegetation added, very close to water level; eggs often damp.
Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
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Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds
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Most apparently migrate north through interior of North America. In late summer, many move east to Atlantic Coast before turning south; those from farther west may move south to coasts of Mexico and continue southward offshore. Winters mostly along north and northwest coasts of South America.
- All Seasons - Common
- All Seasons - Uncommon
- Breeding - Common
- Breeding - Uncommon
- Winter - Common
- Winter - Uncommon
- Migration - Common
- Migration - Uncommon
See a fully interactive migration map for this species on the Bird Migration Explorer.Learn more
Songs and CallsSharp kick; when disturbed, a shrill kreek.
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How Climate Change Will Reshape the Range of the Black Tern
Audubon’s scientists have used 140 million bird observations and sophisticated climate models to project how climate change will affect this bird’s range in the future.
Zoom in to see how this species’s current range will shift, expand, and contract under increased global temperatures.
Climate threats facing the Black 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.