Black Tern

Chlidonias niger
Black Tern specimens on display in the exhibit "Birds of D.C."

Unlike most species of terns, the Black Tern in breeding plumage has an all-black head and breast with gray wings and gray tail. The Black Tern (9-10 inches) may be separated from related White-winged Tern (Chlidonias leucopterus) by its darker wings and tail, black bill, and dark legs. In winter, the Black Tern loses most of its black plumage, becoming white-breasted and white-throated with a dark gray crown. Males and females are similar to one another in all seasons. The Black Tern inhabits a large part of the Northern Hemisphere. In North America, this species breeds primarily in south-central Canada and the north-central United States, with small outlying breeding areas in California, the northeast, and the central Great Plains. Black Terns migrate south for the winter, when they may be found off both coasts of Central America and northern South America. Non-breeding Black Terns occur during summer months in this species’ winter range, as well as along the Gulf Coast of the U.S. In the Old World, this species breeds in northern Europe and Asia, wintering in West Africa. Black Terns breed in shallow, well-vegetated freshwater marshes. In winter, this species is primarily pelagic, being found in oceanic waters several miles offshore. On migration, Black Terns may be found on a variety of freshwater wetlands, including marshes, ponds, and rivers. This species mainly eats insects and fish, with fish comprising almost all of its diet in winter. Most North American birdwatchers see Black Terns in summer and on migration, when they are most easily observed while feeding. This species catches prey by flying low over water and swooping down to grab small fish and insects with their bills. Black Terns are most active during the day.

DC Information

Fairly common migrant, more so in autumn than in spring, near fresh and salt water. Spring adults have the whole head and underparts black; in the autumn plumage the forehead, nape, and underparts are white. Immature birds are like autumn adults but have the back tinged with brownish. Sexes are alike.

Specimen Information

The specimen on the left is in winter, non-breeding plumage.
Date: 8/17/1878
Collected By: Mr Hamilton
Locality: Washington, DC (Carp Ponds) (Constitution Gardens)
Sex: Male, Juvenile
Catalog ID: 75363
The specimen on the right is in breeding plumage.
Collected By: NR Wood, WH Hoyt
Locality: Ottawa Co, KS
Sex: Male
Catalog ID: 257590

Distribution Map

distribution map for this species

Bird Vocalizations

Sound from xeno-canto. XC25463 Chlidonias niger (Black Tern)

Sound from xeno-canto. XC25465 Chlidonias niger (Black Tern)

Sound from xeno-canto. XC25467 Chlidonias niger (Black Tern)