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Least Tern


IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

The smallest of American Terns, the Least Tern is found nesting on sandy beaches along the southern coasts of the United States and up the major river systems far into the interior of the continent.

At a GlanceHelp

Both Sexes
8.3–9.1 in
21–23 cm
18.9–20.9 in
48–53 cm
1.1–1.6 oz
30–45 g
Other Names
  • Petite Sterne (French)
  • Charrán mínimo, Golondrinita marina, Gallito (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • The Least Tern prefers sandy beaches for nesting, but it will use a flat gravel roof of a building. On sunny days the hot tar showing through the gravel can burn the feet of chicks or become stuck in their down.
  • The oldest recorded Least Tern was at least 24 years, 1 month old when it was found in New Jersey in 1981. It had been banded in 1957 in Massachusetts.



Seacoasts, beaches, bays, estuaries, lagoons, lakes and rivers, breeding on sandy or gravelly beaches and banks of rivers or lakes, rarely on flat rooftops of buildings.



Small fish. Some invertebrates.


Nesting Facts
Condition at Hatching
Downy, eyes open, able to walk but stays in nest.
Nest Description

Shallow scrape in sand, soil, or pebbles.

Nest Placement



Aerial Dive

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


status via IUCN

Least Concern

Least Tern populations declined by about 88% between 1966 and 2015, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. The North American Waterbird Conservation Plan estimates a continental population of 60,000-100,000 breeding birds, and lists it as a Species of High Concern. Least Tern rates a 14 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score. The species is on the 2016 State of North America's Birds' Watch List, which lists bird species that are most at risk of extinction without significant conservation actions to reverse declines and reduce threats. Least Tern are widespread and common in places, but its favored nesting habitat is prized for human recreation, residential development, and alteration by water diversion, which interfere with successful nesting in many areas. Least Tern is classified as threatened, endangered, or as a species of concern for most states because of loss of nesting habitat, and the interior population has been federally listed as endangered since 1985.


Range Map Help

Least Tern Range Map
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