Common Tern

Sterna hirundo
Common Tern specimens on display in the exhibit "Birds of D.C."

A medium-sized (13-16 inches) tern, the Common Tern in summer is most easily identified by its solid black cap, deeply-forked tail, black-tipped orange bill, and dark wing tips. In winter, this species becomes duller on the head and face, becoming dark-billed and pale headed while retaining conspicuous black eye-patches connected to a black hood. This species may be distinguished from the similarly-sized Forster’s Tern (Sterna forsteri) by that species’ pale wing tips and (in winter) white hood. Male and female Common Terns are similar to one another in all seasons. The Common Tern occurs across much of the world. In North America, this species breeds in a number of inland and coastal sites in the northeastern U.S. and southern Canada, wintering from the Gulf coast south to southern South America. In the Old World, this species breeds in the mid-latitudes throughout Europe, Asia, and North Africa, wintering in coastal Africa, South Asia, and Australasia. Common Terns primarily breed on rocky or sandy islands and beaches. In winter, this species may be found on beaches or, while feeding, in near-shore waters. Common Terns mainly eat small fish, but may eat small invertebrates, including insects and crustaceans, as they become available. Common Terns may be most easily seen standing or walking along the shore or on the beach, where their dark wing tips and (in summer) black-tipped orange bill may be most apparent. With the aid of binoculars, it may also be possible to observe this species feeding by diving headfirst into the water. Common Terns are most active during the day.

DC Information

Fairly common resident in this area from early April to early November. Breeds on sandy islands in costal bays. The entire top of the head is black in spring adults; the forehead is broadly white in autumn and winter birds. Immature birds have the back somewhat mottled with brownish.

Specimen Information

An immature female is at front, left.
Date: 9/20/1930
Collected By: Wm H Ball & Clarence Cottam
Locality:  Hains Point, DC
Sex: Female
Catalog ID: 317964
An adult male is behind the female and slightly right; this bird is in breeding plumage.
Date: 6/10/1897
Collected By: Wm Palmer
Locality:  Smith's Island, VA
Sex: Male
Catalog ID: 293107

Distribution Map

distribution map for this species

Bird Vocalizations

Sound from xeno-canto. XC25566 Sterna hirundo (Common Tern)

Sound from xeno-canto. XC27032 Sterna hirundo (Common Tern)

Sound from xeno-canto. XC27956 Sterna hirundo (Common Tern)