- ORDER: Charadriiformes
- FAMILY: Laridae
Everything about the Least Tern is sharp, from its brilliant yellow bill, to its crisp black-and-white head pattern, to its slender pointed wings and forked tail. This smallest of the world's terns is a noisy presence around its breeding colonies and in coastal waters or broad inland rivers. They fly with jerky wingbeats, hover briefly as they take aim, and then dive into the water to catch small fish. Breeding males often bring these fish back to feed their mates, leading to graceful aerial displays.More ID Info
Find This Bird
Look for Least Terns during the breeding season by keying in on colony sites that are used from year to year. (On some popular beaches, colonies may be cordoned off to keep the near-invisible nests from being trampled.) Elsewhere, watch and listen for Least Terns along outer beaches, sandy islands in major rivers of the Mississippi drainage, and even on flat-roofed shopping centers in coastal towns. A spotting scope is helpful in getting good views of these tiny terns without disturbing them.
- Charrancito americano (Spanish)
- Petite Sterne (French)
- Cool Facts
- The Least Tern is the world's smallest tern—it weighs in at about the same size as a mockingbird.
- The "interior" Least Tern, which nests in the vast Mississippi River drainage, was listed as Endangered in 1985 when the population was estimated at fewer than 2,000 birds. By 2021, following years of conservation efforts, the population had increased to 18,000, allowing the species to be removed from the Endangered Species List.
- On the island of Bonaire, in the southern Caribbean, resourceful Least Terns sometimes take over deserted American Flamingo nests. These towers of mud provide a cool, dry microclimate and offer protection from some nest predators.
- An American folk name for terns is “striker”—both because they hunt by striking the water and because adults dive-bomb anyone that approaches their nest. Along the Mid-Atlantic coast, Least Terns are often called “little strikers” colloquially.
- 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.