Photo: Ursula Dubrick/Audubon Photography Awards

Priority Bird

Least Tern

Sternula antillarum

Our smallest tern. Often seen flying low over the water, with quick deep wingbeats and shrill cries. Usually hovers before plunging into water for tiny prey; does more hovering than most terns. Populations are endangered in many areas because of human impacts on nesting areas, especially competition for use of beaches. However, Least Terns in some parts of the east are now nesting successfully on gravel roofs near the coast.
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.
Our smallest tern. Often seen flying low over the water, with quick deep wingbeats and shrill cries. Usually hovers before plunging into water for tiny prey; does more hovering than most terns. Populations are endangered in many areas because of human impacts on nesting areas, especially competition for use of beaches. However, Least Terns in some parts of the east are now nesting successfully on gravel roofs near the coast.
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Feeding Behavior

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.


Eggs

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.


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.

Diet

Fish, crustaceans, insects. Diet varies with season and location; mostly small fish, crustaceans, and insects, also some small mollusks and marine worms.


Nesting

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

Migration

Leaves North America and northern Mexico entirely in winter, moving to tropical waters as far south as Brazil.

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Migration

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
Songs and Calls
Sharp killick or kip-kip-kip-kiddeek.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
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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.

Coastal Stewardship: Atlantic & Pacific

Coastal Stewardship: Atlantic & Pacific

Protecting shorebirds in habitats especially vulnerable to development and climate threats

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Coastal Stewardship: Gulf

Coastal Stewardship: Gulf

Restoring vital coastal wetlands for colonial and beach-nesting birds

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