|Conservation status||Several populations are endangered. On coasts, nesting areas often disturbed by beach-goers. On inland rivers, fluctuating water levels (from releases from major dams) often flood out nesting sites on sandbars.|
|Family||Gulls and Terns|
|Habitat||Sea beaches, bays, large rivers, salt flats. Along coast generally where sand beaches close to extensive shallow waters for feeding. Inland, found along rivers with broad exposed sandbars, lakes with salt flats nearby. In winter found along tropical coasts, sometimes well out to sea.|
Forages by flying over water, hovering, and plunging to catch prey just below water's surface. Sometimes dips down to take prey from surface of water or land, and may catch insects in flight.
1-3, perhaps rarely more. Buff to pale green, blotched with black, brown, gray. Incubation is by both sexes; female may do more in early stages, male more later. In very hot weather, adult may dip into water and wet belly feathers to cool eggs. Incubation period 20-25 days. Young: Leave nest a few days after hatching, find places to hide nearby. Both parents feed young. Age at first flight about 19-20 days; young may remain with parents another 2-3 months. One brood per year, sometimes two in south.
Leave nest a few days after hatching, find places to hide nearby. Both parents feed young. Age at first flight about 19-20 days; young may remain with parents another 2-3 months. One brood per year, sometimes two in south.
Fish, crustaceans, insects. Diet varies with season and location; mostly small fish, crustaceans, and insects, also some small mollusks and marine worms.
Nests in colonies, sometimes in isolated pairs. In courtship, male (carrying fish in bill) flies upward, followed by female, then both glide down. On ground, displays include courtship feeding. Nest site is on open ground (or on gravel roof). Nest is shallow scrape, sometimes lined with pebbles, grass, debris.
Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
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Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds
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Leaves North America and northern Mexico entirely in winter, moving to tropical waters as far south as Brazil.
- 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 killick or kip-kip-kip-kiddeek.
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How Climate Change Will Reshape the Range of the Least 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 Least 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.