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Common Tern


IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

A graceful, black-and-white waterbird, the Common Tern is the most widespread tern in North America. It can be seen plunging from the air into water to catch small fish along rivers, lakes, and oceans.


Typical Voice

Adult Description

  • Medium-sized tern.
  • White with black cap.
  • Tail long and deeply forked.
  • Wings white with dark tips.

Immature Description

Juvenile with brownish head, and brown bars across back. Immature resembles winter adult, but has even darker primaries.

Range Map Help

Common Tern Range Map
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Field MarksHelp

  • Breeding adult

    Common Tern

    Breeding adult
    • Medium-sized tern with long, forked tail
    • Black cap and dark orange bill with black tip
    • Gray wings
    • Bright orange feet
    • © Donna Lynn, Long Island, New York, July 2011
  • Breeding adult

    Common Tern

    Breeding adult
    • Medium-sized tern
    • Long, forked tail
    • Medium gray wings
    • Black cap and dark orange bill with black tip
    • © Jim McCree, Georgetown, Maine, August 2011
  • Nonbreeding adult

    Common Tern

    Nonbreeding adult
    • Medium-sized tern with long, forked tail
    • Medium gray above with black stripe visible on folded wing
    • Black bill and feet
    • Black only covers rear portion of crown
    • © Larry Meade, Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, Island 1, Virginia, September 2006
  • First summer

    Common Tern

    First summer
    • Gray above with darker wing-tips
    • Black rear crown contrasts with white forehead
    • Some orange at base of mostly dark bill
    • © Bruce Van Valen, Waterford, Connecticut, August 2010
  • Adult

    Common Tern

    • Medium-sized tern with long, forked tail
    • Black cap with orange bill (black tip wears off in late summer)
    • Dark "wedge" on outer flight feathers
    • © B.N. Singh, Edwin B. Forsythe NWR, Oceanville, New Jersey, July 2011
  • Adult feeding juvenile

    Common Tern

    Adult feeding juvenile
    • Adult mostly pale gray above with black cap
    • Juvenile sandy brown above with black crown
    • Both show orange bill and feet
    • © B.N. Singh, Sandy Hook, New Jersey, July 2011

Similar Species

  • Breeding adult

    Arctic Tern

    Breeding adult
    • Smaller and rounder-headed than Common Tern
    • Very short legs
    • Small, dark red bill with no black tip
    • Slightly longer tail
    • © Bill Thompson, Potter Marsh, Anchorage, Alaska, May 2010
  • Breeding adult

    Forster's Tern

    Breeding adult
    • Paler above than Common Tern with longer orange legs
    • Longer tail
    • Paler orange bill
    • © Jim Paris, Edwin B. Forsythe NWR, Oceanville, New Jersey, May 2010
  • Breeding adult

    Roseate Tern

    Breeding adult
    • Longer tail than Common Tern
    • Dark bill, slightly reddish at base
    • Rounded head
    • Long, very slender bill
    • © Nature Framingham, Plymouth, Massachusetts, May 2011

Similar Species

  • No other small tern shows the dark wedge in the spread primaries.
  • Forster's Tern similar, but has longer, brighter orange legs, more orange bill with more extensive black tip, whiter wings and belly, paler back, longer tail, a white leading edge to the wings in breeding plumage, and black restricted to small mask around eye and ear in winter.
  • Roseate Tern much paler, with long white tail streamers, less dark in wings, and usually an all-dark bill.
  • Arctic Tern very similar, but has shorter legs, very little black in wings, darker gray underparts, uniform dark red bill, and longer tail.



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