During the 19th century, common, roseate, arctic, and least terns nested on islands along the entire New England coast. At the turn of the century, hats adorned with tern feathers became the height of fashion and a drastic reduction of the tern population followed. During this decline, gulls, which compete for the same habitat as terns, started to encroach on feeding and nesting sites traditionally used by terns. In the 1970s, the closing of open landfills displaced hundreds and thousands of gulls, who moved to offshore nesting habitat used by the declining tern population. Again the large, aggressive gulls kept the terns from their traditional offshore habitats. When they nest inland, terns not only have to compete with gulls but also have to deal with mainland predators, thus limiting their reproductive success.
In 1956 Thacher Island was the breeding ground for 1125 pairs of arctic, common and roseate terns. There are currently no nesting terns on the island. However, Thacher Island has the potential to regain its status as a prime area for tern breeding. The refuge initiated a tern restoration program in 2001. If successful, we can look forward to the return of terns to Thacher Island in the next decade.
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This bird has a circumpolar distribution, breeding in temperate and sub-Arctic regions of Europe, Asia and east and central North America.