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Common Tern Sterna hirundo 

Common Tern from Bohdal

At a glance

Temperate species ranging into the West Indies 

Widespread, all-white tern

Breeding status at all sites needs confirmation

Often confused with Roseate Terns

Extremely rare breeding species in
the West Indies

No detailed studies available on West Indian populations



Breeding adults have red bill, which separates them from a number of white, black-capped terns that are also found in the region. Like many other medium-sized, capped white terns, juveniles and non-breeding adults have dark bills and white foreheads. Outer primaries are partly black. Size 32-36 cm (12 - 15 inches) total length.

Can be confused with Forster's, Roseate and Arctic terns. Tail and tips of folded wings are even in a sitting bird, whereas Roseate Tern has gray outer primaries and a long, deeply-forked tail that extends far beyond the wingtips when sitting. Bill of breeding birds (orange-red with dark tip) is difficult to distinguish from that of breeding Roseate Tern. Gray body of Common Tern in flight is distinct from the all-white underbody and wing of Roseate Tern.


Known to live to 26 years. Begin breeding at age of 3 years. Black caped, white tern. Red legs and bill, bill with black tip. Winter plumage adults have black bills and white foreheads.


Pronounced carpal bar, dusty grey secondaries

Alternative Names

French: Sterne pierregarin

Spanish: Gaviotin comun


Three subspecies recognized: S. h hirundo breeds throughout North America, Caribbean basin, and eastern Eurasia. Winters in Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean, South America, Africa and Indian Ocean. This is the palest, longest billed, and shortest winged subspecies. Breeding adults bill red with black tip, feet also red. Other races breed in western Eurasia.

Likely locations

Wintering and migrant birds are likely to show up anywhere though most migration is far at sea. During the nesting season, birds are found in proximity of breeding colonies. Non-breeding individuals roost in breeding colonies of other terns in the region. In fact, the West Indies region is an important maturation area where many subadult birds remain for several years before reaching adulthood and returning to northern breeding sites.


Breeds in both North America and Eurasia, winters at sea and coastal areas in the tropics and subtropics. Breeding colonies primarily on Atlantic coast and along inland rivers and lakes in Canada. Also nests in Bermuda and on islands of Aruba, Curacao, Bonaire, and Venzuela.  Typically migrates far at sea. 


At sea

At sea usually in small to modest sized flocks often associated with gulls and other tern species during migration and when wintering. Feeds on the wing by diving to surface, plunge diving and contact dipping. Feeds on small fish (under 150 mm) and sometimes on crustaceans and insects. Wintering birds roost at night on shore.

At the nest

Colonial, nesting on ground. Nest is a scrape in sand or other substrate. Generally 3 light brown, dark-splotched, eggs. Nest material added during incubation. Nest in late spring. Incubation 21-23 days, fledging 22-29 days, parents continue to feed young until time colony disperses.

Current Population 

Country BreedingSites LowEstimate HighEstimate Comments
Bermuda 6 6 60
Bahamas 2 31 31 ProbablyROST
Turks&Caicos 2 200 210 ProbablyROST
Cuba 2 105 105 ProbablyROST
USVirginIslands 4 2 32 ProbablyROST
Anguilla 1 60 75 ProbablyROST
St.Bartholomew 2 50 55 ProbablyROST
Antigua&Barbuda 1 1 10 ProbablyROST
Guadeloupe 1 1 10 ProbablyROST
Martinique 1 1 10 ProbablyROST
Venezuela 7 116 170
Bonaire 3 5 24
Curacao 5 133 133
Aruba 1 40 40
Total 38 751 965

Inland lakes and rivers 45,176 (Nisbet 2002)
Coastal Canada 37,500 (Nisbet 2002)
New England 15,000 pr. (Brown and Nettleship 1984)
North and Middle Atlantic coast 29,000 pr (Buckley and Buckley 1984)
South Eastern US 2,247 (Clapp and Buckley 1984)
Bermuda 25 pr. (Amos 1991)
Netherlands Antilles 200-300 pr. Voous (1983)
Islands off Venezuela ca 100 pr (LeCroy 1976)
Total 129,473 pr. Kushlan et al. (2002) estimate 300,000 adults (150,000 pr.)
Bahamas a few (Buckley and Buckley 2000; Needs confirmation)
West Indies 50-100 pr. (Buckley and Buckley 2000; Needs confirmation)

Conservation Status

Not a species of conservation concern on a global level, but listed as endangered, threatened or of special concern by states around the Great Lakes and several Atlantic coastal states. Listed as Yellow (sensitive) in Nova Scotia. The West Indian and Bermuda population is extremely small (<100 pr) . For the total region there are probably fewer than 300 pair and these birds are in immediate conservation need. 

Conservation Needs

Primary need is confirmation of nesting as identification of birds in West Indiean breeding colonies remains suspect. The Roseate Terns in the region are more similar to Common Terns than Roseates in other locations.

The few small, scattered colonies in the region need full protection from disturbance and egging. Genetic studies in Bermuda of West Indian populations are needed to show relationships with North American populations. Possible confusion with Roseate Terns makes some older reports suspect; surveys of all current and historic breeding sites highly recommended. Migrant Common Terns from North American breeding sites often appear in nesting colonies of other terns, so care must be taken to confirm actual nesting. Because of this, some older reports of breeding in the region remain suspect.

Vegetation management may be needed in some areas; these terns need open sites with scattered vegetation for cover for chicks. Gull control should be considered at colonies with near by nesting Laughing Gulls.

Relatively rapid recovery of species along Atlantic coast after close of millinery trade of the late 1800’s suggest that protection of this species in the West Indies and on their wintering grounds would have positive results.



Selected References:

Amos, A. 1991. A guide to the birds of Bermuda. Warwick, Bermuda, privately published. 206 pp.

Brown, R. G. B. Brown and D. N. Nettleship. 1984. The seabirds of Northeastern North America: their present status and conservation requirements. Pp. 85-100 in J. P. Croxall, P. G. Evans and R. W. Schreiber (eds.). Status and Conservation of the World's Seabirds. ICBP Tech. Publ., No. 2. 778 p.

Buckley, P. A. and F. G. Buckley. 1984. Seabirds of the North and Middle Atlantic coast of the United States: their status and conservation. Pp. 101-133 in J. P. Croxall, P. G. Evans and R. W. Schreiber (eds.). Status and Conservation of the World's Seabirds. ICBP Tech. Publ., No. 2. 778 p.

Buckley, P. A. and F. G.Buckley. 2000. Breeding Common Terns in the Greater West Indies: status and conservation priorities. Pp. 96-102 in E. A. Schreiber and D. S. Lee (eds.) Status and Conservation of West Indian Seabirds. Society of Caribbean Ornithology, Special Publication Number 1. 225 pp.

Clapp, R. B. and P. A.Buckley. 1984. Status and conservation of seabirds in the southeastern United States. Pp. 135-155 in J. P. Croxall, P. G. Evans and R. W. Schreiber (eds). Status and Conservation of the World's Seabirds. ICBP Tech. Publ., No. 2. 778 p.

LeCroy, M. 1976. Birds observed from Los Roques, Venezuela. American Museum of Natural History Novitates 2599: 1-30.

Nisbet, I. C. T. 2002. Common Tern (Sterna hirundo). In The Birds of North America, No. 618 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc. Philadelphia, Pa.

Van Halewyn, R. and R. Norton. 1984.The status and conservation of seabirds in the Caribbean. Pp. 169-222 in J. P. Croxall, P. G. Evans and R. W. Schreiber (eds). Status and Conservation of the World's Seabirds. ICBP Tech. Publ., No. 2. 778 p.

Voous, K. 1983. Birds of the Netherlands Antilles, 2nd ed. Curaco, De Walburg Pers. 327 pp.

West Indian Breeding Seabird Atlas by Will Mackin and David Lee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on work at www.wicbirds.net. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at www.wicbirds.net.

Suggested Citation: Lee, D. S., W. A. Mackin. 2009. Common Tern. West Indian Breeding Seabird Atlas <http://www.wicbirds.net/cote.html>. Last Updated: _____. Date accessed: ______.

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