National Wildlife Refuge System

Common Tern


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The common tern is a hunter and fish-lover.
Credit: Krista Lundgren/USFWS

It may look like your average seagull, but don’t expect the common tern to steal your snacks at the beach.

The common tern, similar in size and shape to a seagull, is a hunter and fish-lover above all, and prefers diving from up to 50 feet in the air instead of waiting for you to drop a chip.

Occupying coastlines from North Carolina up into Canada, and west into the Rocky Mountains, the common tern migrates to the coasts of Central and South America during the winter. While predominantly found near oceans, common terns will also nest along lakes and rivers, as long as the climate remains temperate and vegetation remains scarce.

Common terns have straight, pointed, brightly-colored beaks. They also have a black-colored cap and nape, which stands out against its bright white plumage.

Common Tern Data

  • Size and color – 12 to 14 inches tall, weighing between four to five ounces, with 30 to 39 inch wingspans. With no significant difference between the sexes, adult terns have grey-to-white plumage, white tail feathers, and orange-to-black legs and beaks.
  • Range – Spends summers on northern coastlines above North Carolina. Winters in Central and South America. Found year-round in Cuba.
  • Diet – Common terns mainly eat small fish in oceans, lakes or rivers. They may also eat some invertebrates, such as worms, leeches, mollusks and crustaceans.
  • U.S. Habitat – Near fresh or saltwater, mainly islands, marshes and beaches.

See This Bird!

  • Mille Lacs National Wildlife Refuge, MN – Host to one of only five breeding populations of common tern in Minnesota, Lake Mille Lacs’ abundance of minnows provides ample food for the birds. Hennepin Island, in the center of the lake, also provides security from mainland predators. The islands are closed to the public but boating is permitted in the surrounding lake.
  • Nantucket National Wildlife Refuge, MA – Common terns enjoy the safety of Nantucket’s many rocky coastal islands, and have grown fiercely territorial toward predators.
  • Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, OH – Found along the marshy areas of the refuge where low-lying pools of water provide an easy hunting ground.
Last updated: August 17, 2015