Roseate Tern

Sterna dougallii

(c) Scott Hecker
  • Gulls, Terns, and Skimmers
  • Charadriiformes
  • Charrán Rosada, Gaviotina, Palometa
  • Sterne de Dougall
With its silvery appearance, light, buoyant flight, and streaming tail feathers, the Roseate Tern is the epitome of elegance. Scarce everywhere, these small, graceful seabirds nest only on a few islands along the eastern seaboard. The Roseate's harsh, distinctive two-note call, and pink-hued breast, best seen at the beginning of the nesting season, are among their unique traits.
(c) Jim Fenton
Appearance Description
This medium-sized tern weighs about 3.9 ounces (110 grams), and measures about 12.5 inches in length, with a wingspan of 29 inches. The Roseate Tern's name derives from the faint pink hue on the breast, sometimes visible at close range. Sexes look similar, with a slender pale pearly gray-white body, black cap, deeply forked tail with long outer tail feathers, long red legs, and a long, thin, black bill which reddens at the base as the breeding season progresses, then reverts to black again. At any time of year, the underwing of the Roseate Tern lacks the dark trailing edge of other terns, and at rest, the Roseate's tail projects farther beyond the wings.
Range Map
Courtesy Kenn Kaufman
Range Distribution
Widespread but very local, and rarely seen inland, Roseate Terns are found on all continents but Antarctica. In North America, they nest only along the Atlantic coast, mainly in the northeast and Florida. They winter in northeastern South America and Brazil.
A legend for the range map to the right can be found here.
Roseate Terns forage in coastal waters, and nest on islands and ocean coasts, favoring protected areas and warmer water. Flat rocky or sandy areas on islands and beaches, and other sparsely vegetated, open ground areas are typical breeding habitat.
Roseate Terns live mostly on small fish, such as sand lance, hake, and herring in the northeast, patrolling above water, then plunging to catch fish below surface. They occasionally eat crustaceans as well
Roseate Terns nest and breed in colonies, often alongside other terns. While they compete with Common Terns for both food and nesting sites, Roseate Terns benefit from the Common Terns' aggressive colony defense. Three-year old Roseate Terns begin performing aerial courtship displays, and males feed females on the ground. Their nests are shallow scrapes in bare sand or gravel, often lined with debris. Unlike Common Terns which usually nest in exposed sites, Roseate Terns often hide their nests under the protective cover of rocks, vegetation, or washed-up debris. At Connecticut's Falkner Island colony, terns using protected nest sites created by the research staff have higher reproductive success than those using less-protected, naturally occurring sites.
Roseate Terns usually lay 2 cream-colored eggs, marked with dark blotches. Both sexes incubate the eggs and care for the young. The chicks hatch about three and a half weeks later, able to walk, with their eyes open. They may leave the nest to seek better shelter several days later. They begin to fly, at about 4 weeks of age, and may remain with their parents for about 2 months.
Roseate Terns migrate along the coast or out to sea, leaving North America in winter for the Caribbean and northern coast of South America. Birds younger than 3 may remain on their wintering grounds.
  • 80,000
  • 24,750
  • Endangered
  • moderate population declines; very low population size
Population Status Trends
The Roseate Tern, due to its long-term trend of declining populations, is listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) as an endangered species in the northeast. The Caribbean population is listed as threatened, by the USFWS and the global status of the Roseate Tern is "near threatened."
Conservation Issues
Devastated by plume and egg hunters in the late 1800s, Roseate Tern numbers increased following legislative protection in North America. This partial recovery ceased in the 1930s, partly due to the concentration of Roseate Terns in a small number of nesting colonies. Consequently, overfishing-related declines in the fish they feed upon, chemical pollution, or oil spills, often have disastrous results. Their small population size and habitat of staging in relatively large groups also makes Roseates vulnerable to fall hurricanes. The species is also vulnerable to direct disturbances, such as human activity, and domestic and introduced predators.
Exploding gull populations create problems for Roseates. Individual gulls specialize in preying on tern eggs, chicks, and even adults. Also, gulls, which nest earlier than terns and are larger and more aggressive, frequently cause terns to abandon their nests. With increasing human development, suitable alternative coastal locations are scarce. The continuing decline of Roseate Terns is also partly due to hunting on their South American wintering grounds, where colonies roosting on beaches and sandbars are vulnerable to trapping and egging.
Because Roseate Terns nest with Common and Arctic terns, protection of all tern nesting colonies is vital to their survival. Researchers are exploring the use of various non-lethal control measures to create and maintain gull-free islands. The success of tern colony management, geared toward maintaining productivity levels at more than one fledgling per pair per year, presents some cause for optimism about the Roseate Tern's future. Recovery strategies include maintaining predator-free tern breeding sites, reducing gull populations by reducing the amount of food available to them from dumps and fishery wastes, and promoting tern protection on winter ranges.
What You Can Do
Never leave fishing lines, lures, or hooks on beaches; entanglement is usually lethal to terns.
Don't dump garbage or fishing bait which feeds predatory gulls. Advocate the elimination of open municipal dumps and to stop disposing of fish wastes from fishing vessels and factories.
Don't disturb nesting tern colonies when hiking or landing boats; prevent dogs and children from disturbing them. When parent terns abandon their nests, eggs or chicks can overheat or become wet and chilled, often resulting in death.
Support Audubon's Seabird Restoration Program which is actively managing most of the Roseate Tern colonies off the coast of Maine.
Take a puffin and tern watching cruise to Maine's Eastern Egg Rock in June or July to see Roseate Terns.
For actions you can take, including Audubon activities, please visit our resources page.
More Information
Learn more about the restoration of Maine's Roseate Terns under Audubon's Seabird Restoration Program:
Learn about ocean conservation at:
Visit our resources page for more information about this species.
Natural History References
Gochfeld, M., J. Burger, and I. C. T. Nisbet. 1998. Roseate Tern (Sterna dougallii). In The Birds of North America, No. 370 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.
Sibley, David Allen. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, 2000
Kaufman, Kenn. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1996
Conservation Status References
Gochfeld, M., J. Burger, and I. C. T. Nisbet. 1998. Roseate Tern (Sterna dougallii). In The Birds of North America, No. 370 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.
Sibley, David Allen. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, 2000
Kaufman, Kenn. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1996