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Least Tern

Sternula antillarum

Weighing approximately one ounce and measuring just nine inches in length, the least tern is the smallest of the North American terns. (vijay_SRV/Flickr)
Weighing approximately one ounce and measuring just nine inches in length, the least tern is the smallest of the North American terns. (vijay_SRV/Flickr)

In the spring and summer, the least tern can be identified by its black crown and nape, which contrast with its white forehead.


  • Females are slightly smaller than males
  • Weighs approximately one ounce and measures nine inches in length
  • Body is slate gray on top and white below, with pointed wings and forked tail
  • Can be identified in spring and summer by black crown and nape, which contrast with white forehead
  • Black edge of outer wing is conspicuous in flight
  • Bill and feet are yellow


  • Seacoasts, beaches, bays, estuaries, lagoons, lakes and rivers
  • Nests on sandy or gravelly beaches and riverbanks


  • Distributed nearly worldwide
  • Breeds on the Pacific coast from central California to Peru and on the Atlantic coast from Maine to Argentina. Also breeds along the Colorado, Red, Rio Grande, Missouri and Mississippi river systems and along the Great Lakes
  • Winters from the Gulf Coast and Central America south to Peru and Brazil


  • Feeds on small fish, crustaceans and insects
  • Hovers over the water and dives or skims for prey


  • Predators include large birds (including American kestrels, great blue herons, crows and owls) and small mammals (including raccoons, skunks, foxes, coyotes, cats and dogs)


  • Known for its delicate, graceful and buoyant flight
  • Wingbeats are rapid


  • Call a sharp “kip-kip-kip”
  • When alarmed, call is a sharp “zreep” or a high-pitched “kee-zink, kee-zink”

Reproduction and Life Cycle:

  • Breeds in colonies of up to 200 birds
  • Nests on sandy or gravelly beaches and riverbanks. Nests are scraped in sand and may be  lined with shell, gravel or other debris
  • Both sexes build nests, incubate and care for young
  • Eggs are laid in clutches of two from late May through June and hatch in 21 days
  • Chicks leave the nest a few days after hatching , but adults continue to care for them, leading them to shelter in nearby grasses and bringing them food
  • Chicks fledge in approximately 20 days, but can stay with adults for up to three months
  • Average lifespan is 15 years, although studies have found individuals up to 21 years old

Other Facts:

  • Least terns’ nesting habitat often overlaps with human recreation and residential areas. Because of human interference and habitat loss, least terns are classified as threatened, endangered or of concern in most states.
  • Terns live in defensive colonies: it is common for adults to screech, mob, defecate on and dive at intruders. Because of this, piping plovers (another endangered beach-nesting bird) are often seen nesting near least tern colonies.
  • Until protective legislation was passed in 1918, the least tern population was almost completely lost due to hunting for the millinery trade.

Sources and Additional Information:

  • Least Tern – The Cornell Lab of Ornithology
  • Least Tern  – The New York Department of Environmental Conservation
  • Least Tern  – The New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife 

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