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Elegant Tern


IUCN Conservation Status: Near Threatened

A medium-sized tern with a shaggy crest and a long, slightly drooping orange bill, the Elegant Tern is seen along the Pacific Coast. After nesting in very southern California and Mexico, it wanders northward to northern California, or even to British Columbia.

At a GlanceHelp

Both Sexes
15.4–16.5 in
39–42 cm
42.1 in
107 cm
6.7–11.5 oz
190–325 g
Other Names
  • Sterne élégante (French)
  • Charrán elegante, Golondrina-marina elegante (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • Approximately 90-97% of all Elegant Terns nest in one colony on Isla Rasa in the Gulf of California, Mexico.
  • The Elegant Tern was first found nesting in the United States in 1959 in San Diego Bay, California. Since the 1980s, several more colonies have been established in California.
  • The oldest recorded Elegant Tern was at least 20 years, 11 months old when it was found in California in 2010, the same state where it had been banded in 1989.



Coastal waters, occasionally ocean far from land. Breeds on low, flat, sandy islands.



Small fish. Some invertebrates.


Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
1–2 eggs
Condition at Hatching
Downy, eyes open, able to walk but stays in nest.
Nest Placement



Aerial Dive

Flies over water with bill pointing down; plunges into water to catch fish.


status via IUCN

Near Threatened

There is little information on Elegant Tern population trends. The North American Waterbird Conservation Plan estimates 34,000-60,000 breeding birds on the continent, and lists it as a Species of Moderate Concern. Elegant Tern rates a 16 out of 20 on the Conservation Concern Score, and is on the 2016 State of North America's Birds' Watch List, which includes bird species that are most at risk of extinction without significant conservation actions to reverse declines and reduce threats. The species is listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List. Elegant Tern appear to be more widespread and abundant in southern Gulf of California than in the past. The species now nests mostly on one island, Isla Rasa, Mexico. Its limited distribution, and annual fluctuations at some colonies, are due at least in part to deleterious effects of humans and feral animals.


Range Map Help

Elegant Tern Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

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