Common Tern

Did you know?

One exhausted bird picked up on a beach near Fremantle, Western Australia in 1956, had been banded as a nestling in Sweden, and in 6 months had travelled some 20,900km around the Cape of Good Hope.

Common calls include a long, grating 'keeee-yah' and a brisk 'kik-kik-kik'.
Facts and Figures
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Breeding season: 
May to August
Clutch Size: 
1 to 3 eggs
22 days
Nestling Period: 
26 days
Conservation Status
Basic Information
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What does it look like?

The Common Tern is actually common in the northern hemisphere, and is less so in Australia. When breeding the Common Tern is white, with a black crown from bill to nape extending to the bottom of the eye. The back and upperwings are grey, the rump dark brown and the bill is red, tipped black. The legs are also red. The sexes are similar. When not breeding, the forehead and underparts are white and the bill is black.
Young birds have upperparts lightly washed and mottled gingery-brown. The Common Tern is also known as the Asiatic Common Tern, Black-billed Tern or Long-winged Tern.

Similar species: 

The Common Tern has a deeply forked tail and is a medium-sized tern, bigger and bulkier than the Arctic Tern, S.paradisaea, and the Roseate Tern,S. dougallii, but smaller than the White-fronted Tern, S. striata.

Where does it live?

In Australia the Common Tern is a regular non-breeding visitor. It breeds across much of northern North America, Europe and Asia as far east as the Pacific coast of Siberia, and as far south as the Mediterranean, North Africa and Central Asia. It is almost cosmopolitan (worldwide) at other times.


The Common Tern is mainly coastal when not breeding and found in offshore waters, ocean beaches, estuaries and large lakes. Common Terns are occasionally seen in freshwater swamps, floodwaters, sewage farms and brackish and saline lakes.

Seasonal movements: 

The Common Tern is migratory, moving northwards for breeding. It is numerous on the north and east coasts of Australia, but rare in the far south-west.

What does it do?

Common Terns mainly eat small marine fish, but will also eat aquatic insects and crustaceans. When fishing, the Common Tern flies above the water with its bill pointing downwards. On sighting fish it drops with partly closed wings and enters the water with little splash, often submerging completely, and emerges a moment later, shaking off the water as it flies. It sometimes picks up food from the surface of the water, from mud, or even cultivated fields.


The Common Tern breeds in temperate Europe, Asia and North America. It breeds in loose colonies or occasionally on its own, with a single brood. Common terns breed when 4 years old, occasionally younger. Both sexes share nest-building, incubation and care of young. The nest is a shallow depression, usually on bare ground, unlined or sparsely lined with twigs, seaweed, feathers, small stones and shells.

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