Common TernSterna hirundo

adult, breeding
Arthur Morris/VIREO
immature (1st winter)
Arthur Morris/VIREO
Arthur Morris/VIREO
adult, nonbreeding
Arthur Morris/VIREO
adult, breeding
Johann Schumacher/VIREO
Common Tern
Common Tern


13-16" (33-41 cm). White with black cap and pale gray back and wings. Bill red with black tip; tail deeply forked. Similar to Forster's Tern, but lacks frosty wing tip. See also Arctic Tern.


Kip-kip-kip; also tee-aar.


keearr calls #1
churring calls at net
kip alarm calls
keearr calls #2


Lakes, ponds, rivers, coastal beaches, and islands.


Breeds in scattered colonies from Alberta and Labrador south to Montana, Great Lakes, and Caribbean. A common migrant along Pacific Coast. Winters from Florida to southern South America. Also in Eurasia.


A grasp of the field marks of other terns is best gained by comparison with this most common of the "sea swallows." It is a familiar sight on almost all large bodies of water where protected nesting sites exist. This bird flies gracefully over the water with deliberate wingbeats, head turned down at a right angle to the body. When it sights a fish or tadpole, it dives much like a booby to catch its aquatic prey. Sensitive to disturbance during the breeding season, whole colonies often fail to breed successfully because of disruption by humans; as a result, their numbers are slowly declining. They will attack human intruders in the nesting colonies, often striking them on the head with their bills.


2 or 3 spotted olive-buff eggs laid in a depression in sand or in a shallow cup of dead grass, located on sandy or pebbly beaches or open rocky places. Nests in colonies, most often on islands or isolated peninsulas.

Similar Species


White-winged Tern

8-9 1/2" (20-24 cm). W. 25-27" (63-67 cm). Resembles Black Tern, but bill and tail shorter, tail less notched.


Aleutian Tern

13 1/2-15" (34-38 cm). Mantle and wings dark gray, cap black but forehead white; underparts grayish; forked tail white.

adult, breeding

Least Tern

8-10" (20-25 cm). A very small tern with a black-tipped yellow bill and a fast, shallow wingbeat. White with black cap, pale gray back and wings, and forked tail; white forehead.

adult, breeding

Caspian Tern

19-23" (48-58 cm). The largest tern. Largely white, with black cap, slight crest, pale gray back and wings, heavy bright red bill, dusky underwing.

adult, breeding

Roseate Tern

14-17" (36-43 cm). White with a black cap and very pale gray back and wings.

adult, breeding

Forster's Tern

14-15" (36-38 cm). White with pale gray back and wings, black cap, and deeply forked tail. Bill orange with black tip. Similar to Common Tern, but wing tips frosty white, bill more orange.


Arctic Tern

14-17" (36-43 cm). Deeply forked tail. Similar to Common Tern but underparts grayer, bill blood-red, legs shorter, tail longer.


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