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Royal Tern Sterna maxima 

A Royal Tern at a nest site

At a glance

Largest breeding tern in the region

Uncommon breeding species in West Indies

Wintering, and first-second year birds from North American nesting colonies common throughout region

Colonial, lay single egg



One of two large white terns in our area. Larger Caspian Tern occurs only as a migrant and winter resident in region. Royal Tern is 46-53 cm (18-21 inches) total length. White with long, uniform orange bill. Has less black in underwing than Caspian Tern. Royal more likely to be seen far at sea; less likely to be seen inland. Breeding adults have black caps, immatures and non-breeding adults have band of dark plumage extending from eyes over the backs of their heads.


Can live to ages of 27-28 years, perhaps longer. Most begin breeding at 5-6 years. Breeding adults have shaggy black cap. Pale grey dorsal surface, underparts white. White, deeply forked tail. Non-breeding individuals have only black streak through eye and across nape. Tail not forked and grey. Legs black in adults.


Remain on wintering ground for at least first two winters. Legs light orange to yellow. Partial black cap.

Alternative Names

French: Sterne royale;

Caribbean French: Pigeon de mer, Fuquette, Mauve

Charran real
Gaviota real
Gaviotin real
Golondrina marina real
Golondrina de mar
Tirra canalera


One of a number of species of crested terns that collectively have  cosmopolitan distribution. Two subspecies: only one in the Americas is the nominate. The other subspecies is smaller, and breeds along the west central coast of Africa.

Likely locations

Coastal areas throughout region, as breeding species primarily in Bahamas and US Virgin Islands. Typically feeds inshore but can forge far at sea.


Sterna m. maxima primarily a temperate breeder, but also nests in Central America and West Indies Region. Breeds in coastal areas Virginia south to Texas, eastern Mexico, northern South America and disjunct populations from southeastern Brazil to Argentina. In Pacific: western North America from southern California through Gulf of California. In western North Atlantic winters from Carolinas south through Guff of Mexico, Caribbean and Atlantic coast of South America.


At sea

This species, like most of the other white terns most commonly feeds inshore. Primarily diurnal but some nocturnal feeding. Off North Carolina they regularly fly 35 miles or more out to sea to hunt and then return to barrier islands to feed their chicks, so perhaps this occurs in other areas as well. In Gulf Stream feeds along oceanic fronts and over feeding schools of coastal and pelagic fishes. Often seen at sea perched on drifting boards and logs. Most references, however, consider this to be an inshore and coastal species. Feed primarily by plunge diving from heights of 5-10 meters. Feed on relatively large fish. Also eat shrimp and squid.

At the nest

Ground nesting colonial species, nest is a simple depression. Nesting in open sandy areas often with Sandwich Terns. Breeding activity and colony formation begins in April. Normally only one egg. Color and pattern highly variable as used by parents to recognize their own egg. Ground color varies from whitish to dark brown and heavily spotted usually at broad end. Incubation period 30-31 days. Leave nest in first week and form crèches. Young fledge in 28-35 days but young continue to be feed by parents, following them to wintering grounds. Parent young association continues until March.

Current Population 

West Indies (WIBSA data) Sites Low Estimate High Estimate
Turks and Caicos4320335
Dominican Republic11020
Puerto Rico31221
US Virgin Islands747195
Anguilla 3 155 155
St. Maarten14747
St. Barts13050
French Guyana1100100
Total 70 1146 1684

Areas outside West Indies Breeding Pairs Source
Central Atlantic States 4734 Buckley and Buckley 1984
SE United States 62532 Clapp and Buckley 1984
Islands off Yucatan 1000 Howell and Webb 1995
Total for Western North Atlantic 70000 (50000-75000) Kushlan et al. 2002
Gulf of California 8000-10000 Everett and Anderson 1991
South Atlantic Size unknown Recent Discovery 

Conservation Status

Not a species of conservation concern, but rare in West Indies region. Known to be extirpated from several cays in US Virgin Islands.

Conservation Needs

Colonies need protection and monitoring. Minimally signage needed to educate random visitors to colony sites to prevent unintended harm.  Surveys for additional breeding locations needed (particularly out islands of Bahamas, Cuba and Northern coast of South America).

Creches vulnerable, particularly to visitors who bring pet dogs onto nesting cays. Frequent mortality resulting from fishing gear. Egging is a factor in many areas. Laughing gulls puncture numerous eggs and later return to eat the contents when parents desert nest, thus human disturbance of nesting terns makes eggs highly vulnerable to predation.


Selected References:

Buckley, P. A. and F. G. Buckley. 1984. Seabirds of the North and Middle Atlantic coast of the United States: their status and conservation. Pages 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. 2002. Royal Tern (Sterna maxima) in The Birds of North America, No. 700 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.) The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia.

Chardine, J., R. D. Morris, J. F. Parnell, and J. Pierce. Status and conservation priorities for Laughing Gulls, Gull-billed Terns, Royal Terns and Bridled Terns in the West Indies.  Pp. 65-73. 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. Pages 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.

Everett, W. and D. Anderson. 1991. Status and conservation of the breeding seabirds on offshore Pacific islands of Baja California and the Gulf of California. Pages 115-139 in J. P. Coxall, P. G. Evans and R. W. Schreiber (eds.). Status and Conservation of the World's Seabirds. ICBP Tech. Publ., No. 2. 778 p.

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

Howell, S. N. G. and S. Webb. 1995. A guide to the birds of Mexico and northern Central America. Oxford Univ. Press, New York.

Compiled by: Dave Lee and Will Mackin

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. Royal Tern. West Indian Breeding Seabird Atlas <http://www.wicbirds.net/royt.html>. Last Updated: _____. Date accessed: ______.

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