Sterna hirundocommon tern

Geographic Range

Common terns are found from northern Canada south to the Caribbean Sea, as well as throughout Europe, Northern Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East. Some populations of common terns winter in the south to Peru and Argentina. (Ehrlich, et al., 1988; Malling Olsen and Larsson, 1995)


Common terns almost always reside in colonies. The colonies tend to be along ocean coasts, although they are also found on the shores of large lakes. The two things necessary for a colony of terns, or a "ternery," are isolation from predators and a reliable source of food nearby. The birds also must be able to communicate visually and vocally with the rest of the colony from their nests. They nest among rocks and cliffs. (Burger and Gochfeld, 1991; Malling Olsen and Larsson, 1995)

  • Aquatic Biomes
  • lakes and ponds
  • coastal

Physical Description

Because the coloring of common terns changes significantly as seasons change, they are often difficult to identify from plumage alone. They are most easily identified by their black head and red bill. The tail is forked and the tail feathers are more elongated than those of most terns. The wings are pointed and the inner and outer parts of each wing are the same width. The body of common terns is whitish-gray and the underparts are much paler than the upperparts, particularly in adult terns. The female is usually smaller than the male, although only slightly. The bill is usually pointed downward when the tern flies. Other notable characteristics include an exceptionally powerful head and neck and unusually long legs, which distinguish them from other terns such as Arctic terns.

Common terns are 37 cm long, on average, and have a wingspan of 27 cm. (Malling Olsen and Larsson, 1995; Seago, 2002)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • male larger
  • Average mass
    120 g
    4.23 oz
  • Average length
    37 cm
    14.57 in
  • Average wingspan
    27 cm
    10.63 in


Not enough information available.


During courtship, which begins in April, male terns establish their territories at the colony before beginning what is called "courtship feeding," in which males bring fish to the females as a way of courting them. Premating displays are accompanied by the male tern posturing followed by the two terns circling each other. The males mount the females for one- to two-minute intervals before copulation actually takes place. Common terns are known for wildly flapping their wings during and directly after copulating. Common terns are monogamous. (Burger and Gochfeld, 1991; Ehrlich, et al., 1988)

Common terns, after migrating to their breeding grounds shortly after the beginning of spring, proceed to find a mate (terns tend to be monogamous); they reproduce in early to mid-summer. It is rare for a pair to produce more than one clutch per summer. They nest among rocks and cliffs. The nests are made up of shells and debris or of dead vegetation. Clutch size is 3, on average, and the chicks hatch in 3 to 4 weeks. Young fledge in 27 to 30 days. Common tern chicks are able to fly by the time they are a month old but do not reach sexual maturity for 3 years. (Burger and Gochfeld, 1991; Ehrlich, et al., 1988)

  • Breeding interval
    It is rare for a pair to produce more than one clutch per summer.
  • Breeding season
    They reproduce from early to mid-summer.
  • Average eggs per season
  • Average eggs per season
  • Range time to hatching
    3 to 4 weeks
  • Range fledging age
    27 to 30 days
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    3 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    3 years

One of the parents attends the nest at all times after the eggs hatch; the female is often, but not always, the one standing guard. Common terns become very aggressive after their chicks learn to move on their own because of the likelihood that the chicks will be harmed or killed by predators. Both males and females bring food back to the nest, but males are usually more involved in feeding than females are. Chicks are semiprecocial. Young terns usually learn to fly when they are 27 to 30 days old. (Ehrlich, et al., 1988; Palmer, 1941)

  • Parental Investment
  • no parental involvement
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • protecting
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female


The average lifespan is about 9 to 10 years. The oldest common tern ever recorded was 25 years old. (Terres, 1980)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: wild
    0 (high) years
  • Typical lifespan
    Status: wild
    9 to 10 years
  • Average lifespan
    Status: wild
    9-10 years


Common terns live in colonies. There is no clearly organized hierarchy among the birds; all appear to be equal. Although all the terns migrate and live together, each family unit is responsible for its own feeding and care of eggs/chicks. They often defend feeding territories. Terns nest during the breeding season and they migrate at the end of the season. (Burger and Gochfeld, 1991; Ehrlich, et al., 1988)

Home Range

We do not have information on home range for this species at this time.

Communication and Perception

Common terns communicate mostly with their unusual, hoarse voices, and they have three different, distinct calls. During mating, communication is mainly visual and tactile. (Malling Olsen and Larsson, 1995)

Food Habits

The diet of common terns is usually limited to fishes. Often, if food is particularly abundant, the terns will catch more fish than necessary. Common terns sometimes catch fish that are too big for them to swallow. This, combined with their tendency to catch as much as is available even if it is not needed, explains why it is not unusual to see fish scattered around terns' nesting grounds. At the beginning of the breeding season, terns may eat insects, annelids, and echinoderms in addition to fish. However, throughout the later parts of the breeding season, the tern's diet is much more limited.

These terns are very good at catching insects. Many have been reported to fly near the surface of the water and pick insects off the surface while in flight. It is rare for them to eat dead food. They usually fly at great heights before diving for their prey, a behavior uncommon in other terns. The terns dive into the water after a fish, come to the surface, shake the water from themselves, and fly off with the fish. When a solitary tern catches fish in the same spot repeatedly, other terns from its colony join it.

Foods eaten include: "Food fishes," such as whiting, herring, haddock; sand launces; insects; crabs, shrimp, and other crustaceans; annelids; mollusks; fish eggs; and in certain cases, echinoderms. Terns that nest near bodies of fresh water often consume minnows in place of fish like herring and whiting. (Palmer, 1941)

  • Animal Foods
  • fish
  • eggs
  • insects
  • mollusks
  • aquatic or marine worms
  • aquatic crustaceans
  • echinoderms


When a predator comes too close to a tern colony, any terns that spot the predator begin to call loudly to the rest of the colony. Adult terns come over to mob the predator while the chicks take cover in the high grass or in their nests.

Also, the sheer number of terns in a colony aids in the strategy of "passive avoidance". In other words, the probability of any one tern being harmed by a predator is much less because of the number of other terns that the predator could choose instead.

A common tactic among members of colonies, and in fact among all members of tern colonies and gull colonies, is called a "panic." This means that an entire colony of terns flies up making noise, falls silent suddenly, and then swoops back down toward the ground. This can be very threatening to potential predators and often assures that the colony will be left alone, particularly by smaller predators such as blue jays or grackles.

Known predators include: red foxes (Vulpes vulpes), raccoons (Procyon lotor), striped skunks (Mephitis mephitis), minks (genus Mustela), long-tailed weasels (Mustela frenata), squirrels (subfamily Sciurinae), dogs (Canis lupus familiaris), cats (Felis silvestris), rats (Rattus norvegicus), gulls (genus Larus), herons (family Ardeidae), hawks (family Accipitridae), falcons (family Falconidae), owls (family Strigidae), blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata), grackles (genus Quiscalus), reptiles (class Reptilia) and ants (family Formicidae). (Burger and Gochfeld, 1991)

Ecosystem Roles

Common terns have an impact on populations of the prey they eat and are an important food source for their predators. Occasionally the fish they catch and do not eat are eaten by other scavenging animals living in the same area. (Burger and Gochfeld, 1991)

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

In the nineteenth century, terns were exploited commercially for their eggs and feathers. (Burger and Gochfeld, 1991)

  • Positive Impacts
  • body parts are source of valuable material

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There are no known adverse affects of common terns on humans.

Conservation Status

The Michigan DNR considers common terns to be threatened in Michigan. Human interference has caused health and habitat problems for the terns. Human disturbance in the form of deliberately damaging eggs, chicks, and nests has become a problem because the coastal areas where terns nest are also areas where people picnic and sunbathe. Nature photographers and bird watchers, while meaning no harm, sometimes disturb the terns when they are nesting. Humans also cause problems for the terns through environmental pollution with chemicals, which weaken the eggshells and cause birth defects. Some adults and chicks die when they become tangled in netting or plastic. In the nineteenth century, terns were removed from nearly all of their former habitats when they were exploited commercially for their eggs and their feathers. (Burger and Gochfeld, 1991)

Other Comments



Alaine Camfield (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Kristina Sepe (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Phil Myers (editor), Museum of Zoology, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.



living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map


living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

World Map


living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.

World Map


uses sound to communicate

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


an animal that mainly eats meat


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


the nearshore aquatic habitats near a coast, or shoreline.


used loosely to describe any group of organisms living together or in close proximity to each other - for example nesting shorebirds that live in large colonies. More specifically refers to a group of organisms in which members act as specialized subunits (a continuous, modular society) - as in clonal organisms.


animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.


mainly lives in water that is not salty.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds


Having one mate at a time.


having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.


an animal that mainly eats fish

saltwater or marine

mainly lives in oceans, seas, or other bodies of salt water.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


associates with others of its species; forms social groups.


uses touch to communicate


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


Living on the ground.


defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement


uses sight to communicate


Burger, J., M. Gochfeld. 1991. The Common Tern. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Ehrlich, P., D. Dobkin, D. Wheye. 1988. The Birder's Handbook: A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Malling Olsen, K., H. Larsson. 1995. Terns of Europe and North America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Palmer, R. 1941. Behavior of the Common Tern. Boston, MA: Boston Society of Natural History.

Seago, M. 2002. "Common Tern, Sterna hirundo" (On-line). Accessed 03/05/04 at

Terres, J. 1980. The Audubon Encyclopedia of North American Birds. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.