What is a Little Tern?

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  • Written By: Sara Schmidt
  • Edited By: Andrew Jones
  • Last Modified Date: 09 December 2019
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The little tern is a small migratory seabird. Slim and slight, the bird is white with a black head. The animal is a member of the Sternidae family and can be found in Asia, Europe, and North America.

At less than 10 inches(25 cm) long, the little tern is the smallest of the European terns. The birds feature long, pointed beaks, long angular wings, and tail feathers that elongate on the outer sides, creating a deeply forked appearance. Little terns are light gray to white, with black wing tips and caps. Several other types of birds are sometimes confused with the little tern. These include both Saunder's Tern and the Fairy Tern.

Tern beaks are sharp and feature a black tip. Tern chirps are very loud. They are identified by their unique creaking sound. The birds are considered a threatened species and face several threats. Some of these include flooding habitats, habitat destruction by human development, and commercial fishing. Limiting human contact with tern habitats and enforcing local laws and preventative measures, such as erecting protective fences, are some proposed solutions for managing the species.

Three subspecies of little tern exist. These include the albifrons, the guineae, and the sinensis. Each subspecies is known for its migratory patterns over different continents. During the winter months, the little tern may migrate to Australia, South America, or Africa.


Little terns typically build their nests on the ground, in gravelly areas or on islands in scattered colonies. Terns scrape a line in the gravel, then fill it with seaweed, seashell grit, or small rocks. The birds lay up to four eggs at a time. While guarding their eggs, little tern parents can become very aggressive. Even after the eggs have hatched, the birds will remain protective of their young, attacking any potential threats.

Breeding takes place for these birds during the spring and summer months. During mating season, the tern's beak and legs become a shade of yellow rather than their typical black. The black cap also extends during breeding, creating the appearance of an eye patch on the birds.

Fish make up the main source of the little tern's diet. The birds dramatically swoop down toward the water, plunge-diving for their catch. Like many other species of birds, little tern courtship involves feeding. Male terns present females with their catch in order to establish a partnership. Other foods that the birds enjoy include small crustaceans, mollusks, and insects.


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