Unsorted Wild Birds

Common Terns

The Common Terns (Sterna hirundo) is a seabird of the tern family Sternidae. It is sometimes known as the sea swallow.

Distribution / Range

This bird has a circumpolar distribution breeding in temperate and sub-Arctic regions of Europe, Asia, and east and central North America. It is strongly migratory, wintering in coastal tropical and subtropical regions.

The Common Tern is one of the species to which the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (AEWA) applies.

Common Tern


This medium-sized tern is 34-37 cm long with a 70-80 cm wingspan. It is most readily confused within its range with the similar Arctic Tern (Sterna paradisaea), Roseate Tern (S. dougalli), Antarctic Tern (S. vittata), and South American Tern (S. hirundinacea).

Its thin, sharp bill is red with a dark tip. Its longish legs are also red. Its upper wings show a dark primary wedge, unlike the Arctic Tern, which they are uniformly grey. Its long tail extends only to the wingtips on the standing bird, unlike Arctic and Roseate Terns, which extend past the wingtips. It is not as pale as the Roseate Tern and has longer wings.

In winter, the forehead and underparts are white. Juvenile Common Terns show extensive ginger coloration and lack the ‘scaly’ appearance of juvenile Roseate Terns.

The call is clear piping, like that of the Arctic Tern, but lower-pitched and less strident.

Common terns are known to reach an age of 23 years or more on occasion (Austin, 1953). The Common Tern is one of the species to which the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (AEWA) applies. The old Scottish word for the Common Tern is pictar, occasionally encountered in Scotland and the Maritime Provinces of Canada.

Common Tern with chick

Calls / Vocalization

The call is a clear piping, like Arctic Tern but lower pitched and less strident.

Breeding / Nesting

This species breeds in colonies on coasts and islands and often inland on suitable freshwater lakes. This latter practice is assisted by the provision of floating “tern rafts” to give a safe breeding area.

It lays two to four eggs. Like many white terns, it is very defensive of its nest and young and will attack humans and other large predators, but unlike the more aggressive Arctic Tern rarely hits the intruder, usually swerving off at the last moment.

The offering of fish by the male to the female is part of the courtship display.

Common Tern feeding her chick

Common Tern

Diet / Feeding

Like all Sterna terns, the Common Tern feeds by plunge-diving for fish, from either the sea or freshwater lakes and large rivers. It usually dives directly, and not from the “stepped-hover” favoured by Arctic Tern.

Common Tern
Common Tern

Gordon Ramel

Gordon is an ecologist with two degrees from Exeter University. He's also a teacher, a poet and the owner of 1,152 books. Oh - and he wrote this website.

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