Common Tern

Sterna hirundo




Gulls, Terns, Skimmers (Laridae)

Code 4


Code 6



Egg Color:

Buff to brown spotted with dark brown and black.

Number of Eggs:

1 - 3

Incubation Days:

21 - 27

Egg Incubator:

Both sexes

Nest Location:

In sand.

Nest Material:

Lined with plant material.





Common Tern: Medium-sized tern with medium gray upperparts, pale gray underparts sometimes with some pink early in breeding season; glossy black cap and nape. Wings are dark-tipped and have dark leading edge on forewing. Red bill is black-tipped. Legs are red and tail is deeply forked and elongated, tail reaches wingtips at rest. Sexes are similar. Winter adult and juveniles have white forehead, black crown with white streaks; prominent dark bar on lesser coverts; underparts gray; black bill with red base; legs duller red to black-red.

Range and Habitat

Common Tern: Breeds in North America along the Atlantic coast from the northern Maritime Provinces of Canada to South Carolina, occasionally in the Gulf of Mexico or on large inland lakes, and west to Alberta. Spends winters from southernmost breeding areas on the Atlantic coast to northern Ecuador and Brazil. Preferred habitats include sand and shell beaches, grassy uplands, and rocky inland shores.

Breeding and Nesting

Common Tern: Breeding occurs from April to June. One to three buff to brown eggs that are spotted with dark brown and black are laid in a simple scrape built above the high tide line in sand, gravel, shells or seaweed and lined with vegetation. Incubation ranges from 21 to 27 days and is carried out by both parents. Both adults feed the young chicks, which leave the nest a few days after hatching.

Foraging and Feeding

Common Tern: They mainly eat small fish but also feed on crustaceans, insects, squid, shrimp, as well as terrestrial and aquatic insects. They forage by plunge-diving, diving-to-surface or contact-dipping. Successful birds catch single prey items in their bills, fly up and shake water from their plumage, turn the prey in their bill with their tongue, and then swallow it head-first, all within a few seconds of capture.


Common Tern: Call is a harsh, rolling "kee-urr" with a downward inflection.

Similar Species

Common Tern: Roseate and Forster’s terns lack dark leading edge on forewings. Arctic Tern is smaller, shorter-legged, longer-winged, and has solid red (adult) or black (juvenile) bill.


Belly, undertail coverts, chest, flanks, and foreneck.

Back, rump, hindneck, wings, and crown.
The area on top of the head of the bird.
The crown is the top part of the birds head.
Also called the hindneck or collar, it is the back of the neck where the head joins the body.
Parts of a Standing bird X
Head Feathers and Markings X
Parts of a Flying bird X