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Help develop a Bird ID tool!

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.

Drink Birds & Beans coffee. Save our birds.
Drink Birds & Beans coffee. Save our birds.

At a GlanceHelp

Both Sexes
12.2–15 in
31–38 cm
29.5–31.5 in
75–80 cm
3.3–7.1 oz
93–200 g
Other Names
  • Sterne pierregarin (French)
  • Gaviotin común (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • The Common Tern drinks mainly on the wing, gliding with its wings slightly raised and dipping its bill several times into the water.
  • Common Terns living along the coast drink salt water. They do not seek fresh water even when it is available nearby. Like many seabirds, they have nasal glands that excrete the excess salt.
  • The incubating adult Common Tern flies off its nest to defecate 5-50 m (16-160 ft) away. It deposits its feces indiscriminately in nearby water or on the territories of other terns.



Nests on islands, marshes, and sometimes beaches of lakes and ocean.



Small fish. Some invertebrates.


Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
1–4 eggs
Egg Description
Olive to buff, marked with numerous small spots and blotches of dark brown, often concentrated around the larger end.
Condition at Hatching
Downy, eyes open, able to walk but stays in nest.
Nest Description

Pile of dead vegetation on ground. May have no material.

Nest Placement



Aerial Dive

Plunges into water from flight; may hover briefly before plunging.


status via IUCN

Least Concern

Populations severely depleted in late 19th century for millinery trade; recovered with protection. Declined again by 1970s, probably from pesticide poisoning. Some recovery since then, but still in trouble in some areas. Listed as endangered, threatened, or of special concern in many states.


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

Range Map Help

Common Tern Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings