Chinese crested tern (Sterna bernsteini)

Also known as: Chinese crested-tern, Chinese-crested tern, Matsu tern
Synonyms: Thalasseus bernesteini
GenusSterna (1)
SizeLength: 42 cm (2)

The Chinese crested tern is classified as Critically Endangered (CR) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed under Appendix I of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species (CMS) (3).

Previously thought to be possibly extinct, the Chinese crested tern (Sterna bernsteini) was rediscovered in 2000 with a population of just four adult pairs and four chicks (4). This largish, slender bird has a diagnostic black-tipped yellow bill, sometimes with a tiny white spot at the extreme tip (5). Breeding adult Chinese crested terns have a white head and black crested cap (5). The underparts are white and the upperparts are a pale pearl-grey, with blackish outer primary flight feathers (4) (5). The tail is white and deeply forked, and the legs and feet are black. The non-breeding adult is similar, except that the crown is mottled black and white, merging into the black nape. Juvenile Chinese crested terns are a mottled brown colour on the upperparts, with a paler inner part of the wing lining and two dark bars on the inner wing (5).

The Chinese crested tern is poorly understood. It has been recorded in the past on the eastern coast of China, in Hebei, Shandong, Fujian and Guangdong, and outside the breeding season on Halmahera (Indonesia), in Sarawak (Malaysia) and in Taiwan, Thailand and the Philippines. The only recent records are from China in Hebei in 1978 and Shandong in 1991, with a possible record from peninsular Thailand in 1980. The only known current population was found on the Mazu Dao islands off the east coast of mainland China (but under the administration of Taipei) in 2000. The current total numbers are unknown, but are thought to be very small given the rarity of recent records (4).

Although poorly understood, available records indicate that the Chinese crested tern roosts in coastal areas and is otherwise pelagic (4).

Little is known about the biology of the Chinese crested tern. The stomachs of adult specimens were found to contain fish (6) and breeding is thought to occur from May to July, although no definite breeding sites have ever been found (2).

The specific threats facing this exceptionally rare bird have not yet been identified, but a range of environmental issues are known to affect other species within its range, and are therefore highly plausible threats to the Chinese crested tern (4). Offshore islets, which appear to be the key nesting areas of this species, are thought to be relatively safe from human disturbance. However, other coastal wetlands in the Chinese crested tern’s presumed breeding range in eastern China have been affected by large-scale development projects (4) (6). Seabirds are also hunted and exploited for food in China. Indeed, the main threat to the newly discovered population on the Mazu Dao islands is from fishermen from mainland China, who visit the nesting islets to collect seashells and bird eggs. Other potential threats include the introduction of rats and cats to currently predator-free offshore islands, oil pollution and contamination of estuarine areas by industrial and agricultural pollutants, and human disturbance (6).

The Mazu Dao islands were declared as the National Matzu Nature Reserve for Terns in 2000, offering some protection to the birds there (4) (6). The most recent sighting of the Chinese crested tern in China was from Huanghe Sanjiaozhou Nature Reserve in Shandong in 1991, and several other protected areas exist along the Chinese coast where this species may occur (4). The Chinese crested tern is nationally protected in China and Thailand, and the area where it was once recorded in Thailand is protected as the Laem Talumphuk Non-Hunting Area (4) (6). Further studies are certainly needed to better understand this species, including its range, what sort of breeding success it is having, the exact threats it faces and its protection needs (7). One suggested measure, which has been successful elsewhere, is to give local people a vested interest in seeing the terns remain alive, perhaps by allowing or encouraging fishermen to take birdwatchers to see the rare seabirds, rather than collecting their eggs (7). Thus, special boat trips have now been made available from Matsu Island to the National Matsu Nature Reserve for Terns during the months of June and July for NT$350 (approx. US$11). Landing on the nesting island is not permitted and viewing is from the boat at a safe distance, so that the terns are not disturbed, but this revenue may help protect the Chinese crested tern by making it more valuable alive than dead (5).

For more information on the Chinese crested tern see:

Authenticated (23/10/2006) by Jo Ann MacKenzie, Chair of Friends of Taiwan Association (Canada West), and Executive Secretary of the International Taiwan Birding Association (Canada).

  1. IUCN Red List (May, 2008)
  2. Gochfeld, M. and Burger, J. (1996) Family Sternidae (Terns). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (Eds.) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 3. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (May, 2008)
  4. BirdLife International (April, 2006)
  5. Birding in Taiwan: International Taiwan Birding Association - Chinese Crested Tern (April, 2006)
  6. BirdLife International. (2001) Threatened Birds of Asia: the BirdLife International Red Data Book. BirdLife International, Cambridge, UK.
  7. BBC News: Chinese seabird ‘returns from extinction’ (April, 2006)