At a Glance

Most terns are white with dark caps, and have forked tails. The Brown Noddy, like an anti-tern, is dark with a white cap, and has a wedge-shaped tail. At sea it flies low, with deep wingbeats; when perched, it has a solemn and lethargic look. Widespread in tropical oceans, including around Hawaii. Birders know this species mostly from its colony at the Dry Tortugas, Florida, where it nests alongside the much noisier and more numerous Sooty Tern.
Gull-like Birds, Gulls and Terns
Low Concern
Coasts and Shorelines, Open Ocean
Florida, Mid Atlantic, Southeast, Texas
Direct Flight, Rapid Wingbeats

Range & Identification

Migration & Range Maps

Movements not well known. Present around the Tortugas January to October. May be seen well offshore elsewhere in Florida waters during warmer months. Sometimes driven to shore or inland in southeast by tropical storms.


15" (38 cm). W. 32 (81 cm). Mostly dark brown, with a wedge-shaped tail. White-capped adults are easily recognized; immatures show less white, mainly on forehead.
About the size of a Crow, About the size of a Mallard or Herring Gull
Brown, White
Wing Shape
Pointed, Short, Tapered
Tail Shape
Long, Notched, Pointed, Wedge-shaped

Songs and Calls

Low cah, similar to call of a young crow.
Call Pattern
Flat, Simple
Call Type
Chatter, Rattle


Tropical oceans. Found over warm seas, often very far from land. Seldom comes near mainland coast anywhere, except when driven there by storms. Nests on tropical islands, in bushes on beach or on rocky ledges.



One. Pale buff, lightly spotted with reddish brown and pale lavender. Incubation is by both sexes, 35-38 days.


Both parents feed young, by regurgitation. At Tortugas, adult noddies often forage closer to colony than Sooty Terns, feeding their young more often, and the young mature faster (able to fly at 6-7 weeks).

Feeding Behavior

Forages in flight by dipping to take items from surface of water. Sometimes makes shallow plunges for prey just below surface, but not forceful plunge-dives like some terns. Rarely settles on water to feed. At Tortugas, adults nesting close together in colony may fly out to sea to forage together.


Small fish. As far as known, feeds on small fish, often catching them when schools of large predatory fish drive the smaller ones to the surface.


Courtship involves bowing and nodding movements (leading to name of "Noddy"); also swift high flight by pairs. Nest: On Tortugas, nest site is in bay cedar or cactus, a few inches to 12' above ground. Nest (built by both sexes) is a platform of sticks and seaweed, often with bits of rock or coral added as lining. Nests may be re-used and added to every year, growing to large size. In some other regions, species nests on cliffs and among stone crevices, laying eggs on bare rock.

Climate Vulnerability

Conservation Status

Formerly more numerous on Tortugas, numbers probably hurt by commercial egg harvesting in 19th century. Current numbers there apparently stable. Widespread and common in tropical seas around the world.

Explore More