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What is a Royal Tern?

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  • Written By: Rhonda Rivera
  • Edited By: John Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 31 October 2016
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Royal tern is the common name given to a seabird scientifically known as Thalasseus maximus or Sterna maxima. These birds are primarily white and gray with yellow-orange beaks and black accents. They can be found in North America, Africa, and some of Europe. Like some other seabirds, a royal tern dives into water to capture fish in its beak. During mating season, this catch might be offered to a female in a display of courtship.

These birds have a white body and underbelly with grey wings, black feet, and black tufts on their foreheads. They are often described as gull-like, though gulls in general do not get along with royal terns. Sometimes royal terns are confused with elegant, lesser, and great terns because of their similar appearances. There are subtle differences, however; for example, a royal tern has a shorter and straighter bill than an elegant tern.

A royal tern can be found on the coasts and islands of North America, Africa, and occasionally Europe. In Europe, this kind of tern is rare and likely migrated from North America. Royal terns migrate either south or north during the winter, depending on the region they are in.

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When a royal tern finds a mate, it creates a nest on the shore by digging in the sand and regularly defecating in it. The feces builds up and reinforces the nest against the tides. A royal tern will fiercely defend its nest of one to two eggs against predators. These eggs hatch roughly one month after laying.

The young of royal terns are born with their eyes open and covered in a soft down. They leave the nest shortly after hatching, but their parents can find and feed them even among hundreds or thousands of other terns. Sometimes young royal terns form a crèche, which is a group of young birds guarded by one or more adult birds. These groups can contain hundreds of newly hatched chicks, depending on the size of the colony.

A royal tern does not wander far from the coast in search of food, but it might fly relatively far away from the colony. These birds are known to hunt both alone and in groups, though stealing fish from one another is not unheard of. When it dives, it captures fish close to the surface rather than submerging itself in water to get fish further down.

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