Field Notes
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
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Researchers Examine Habitat Relationships of a Declining Tern
Midwest Region, June 11, 2013
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University of Minnesota researchers counting Black Terns at a wetland.
University of Minnesota researchers counting Black Terns at a wetland. - Photo Credit: Andy Forbes

Black Terns are a bird that might remind you of both a tern and a swallow.


These striking birds, which sport pure black heads and bodies, along with gray wings and white under their tails, are a fairly common species that can be seen in any state within the Midwest region, although they no longer breed in Missouri. They are primarily associated with emergent wetlands, and you’re most likely to see them chasing insects on the wing over water – both picking them off of the water’s surface, and pursuing them mid-air. Like many other terns, they will also eat small fish and crustaceans.

Sadly, while Black Terns still have a broad distribution, their numbers are declining, as remaining wetlands have apparently become less suitable for them due to landscape changes such as shrub/tree invasion of prairie/wetland complexes, declining water levels associated with Great Lakes-associated wetlands, invasive species including Phragmites, wetland alteration/drainage as a result of agricultural expansion, among other potential factors.

To combat this decline, the Upper Mississippi River/Great Lakes Region Joint Venture (UMGLJV) has estimated that an additional 4,750 hectares of habitat will be needed to achieve a 50% increase in the species’ population. However, the relative importance of the aforementioned threats, as well as key wetland habitat characteristics, have limited the ability of conservation partners to best target wetland restoration for this species.

The UMGLJV is partnering with the U.S. Geological Survey and University of Minnesota to conduct an analysis of factors affecting Black Tern habitat use to determine which habitat-related changes have most closely associated with declining Black Tern nesting colony site use. Analysis will also validate models developed by the UMGLJV to outline the highest priority areas to implement conservation on the species’ behalf. This project will provide conservation partners with a much better idea of where to work to help conserve this unique species in the Midwest.

Contact Info: Andrew Forbes, 612-713-5364, andrew_forbes@fws.gov
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