Tuesday 18 June
Elegant tern (Sterna elegans)
Elegant tern fact file
- Find out more
- Print factsheet
Elegant tern description
The elegant tern is a medium-sized and rather striking tern, with a black cap and a distinctive long, shaggy crest. The upperparts and wings are light grey, and the underparts white, often suffused with rosy pink on the belly (2) (3) (4). The beak is particularly long and slender, with a slight downward curve, and varies from yellow-orange in the female to bright orange-red in the male. The legs and feet are usually black, but in some individuals are orange. The tail is deeply forked. In non-breeding plumage, the elegant tern has a white forehead and crown, while juvenile birds are distinguished by the mottled upperparts, darker feathers on the wings and tail, and a shorter, paler beak (2) (3).
- Thalasseus elegans. Top
- National Audubon Society - Elegant Tern:
- Birds of North America Online:
- BirdLife International:
- Diverse group of arthropods (a phylum of animals with jointed limbs and a hard chitinous exoskeleton) characterised by the possession of two pairs of antennae, one pair of mandibles (parts of the mouthparts used for handling and processing food) and two pairs of maxillae (appendages used in eating, which are located behind the mandibles). Includes crabs, lobsters, shrimps, slaters, woodlice and barnacles.
- El Niño
- A natural phenomenon that happens every 4 to 12 years, and lasts for several months, when upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich water does not occur. This causes the warming of ocean surface water off the western coast of South America and causes die-offs of plankton and fish. It also affects Pacific jet stream winds, altering storm tracks and creating unusual weather patterns in various parts of the world.
- Accumulated droppings found where large colonies of animals such as seals, bats or birds occur; it is rich in plant nutrients.
- To keep eggs warm so that development is possible.
- Having only one mate during a breeding season, or throughout the breeding life of a pair.
- IUCN Red List (June, 2009)
- del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1996) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 3: Hoatzin to Auks. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
- Burness, G.P., Lefevre, K. and Collins, C.T. (1999) The Birds of North America Online: Elegant Tern (Sterna elegans). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
- National Audubon Society - Elegant Tern (June, 2009)
- BirdLife International (June, 2009)
- Kaufman, K. (2001) Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, Massachusetts.
- view the contents of, and Material on, the website;
- download and retain copies of the Material on their personal systems in digital form in low resolution for their own personal use;
- teachers, lecturers and students may incorporate the Material in their educational material (including, but not limited to, their lesson plans, presentations, worksheets and projects) in hard copy and digital format for use within a registered educational establishment, provided that the integrity of the Material is maintained and that copyright ownership and authorship is appropriately acknowledged by the End User.
Elegant tern biology
A social bird, the elegant tern can often be seen foraging in flocks, although smaller foraging groups or solitary foraging may be more usual. When feeding in a flock, the elegant tern calls frequently with a distinctive ke-e-e-r. The diet consists mainly of fish, particularly northern anchovy (Engraulis mordax), as well as occasional crustaceans, with prey caught by hovering and then plunge-diving into shallow water (2) (3) (4) (6). The elegant tern is often the victim of piracy by other seabirds, which attack the tern to steal its prey (2) (3).
Breeding occurs between April and May (2) (3), the elegant tern nesting in dense colonies, often in the company of larger, more aggressive species such as Heermann’s gull (Larus heermanni) and Caspian terns (Sterna caspia), which may offer some protection against predators (3) (6). Nest-building and egg-laying are highly synchronised within the colony, occurring in most pairs within the same 24 hour period (2) (3). The elegant tern is thought to be monogamous, forming a pair bond through elaborate courtship displays. The nest consists of a shallow scrape on the ground, and a single egg is laid, which hatches after around 25 to 26 days (2) (3) (4) (6). Both the male and female help to incubate the egg and raise the chick. The young elegant tern leaves the nest after just a few days, joining other chicks in a ‘crèche’, where it is still fed by its parents (3) (4) (6). Although fledging may occur in 30 to 35 days (2), the young tern is dependent on the adults for up to six months, during which time it learns how to forage (3) (4). Breeding is thought to occur from around three years old (3).Top
Elegant tern range
The elegant tern has the most restricted breeding range of any tern in North America, breeding at just a few sites along the Pacific coast, from southern California in the United States, to Baja California and the Gulf of California in Mexico. Over 90 percent of the global population nests on Isla Rasa in the Gulf of California, with smaller numbers at Bolsa Chica, San Diego Bay, and Los Angeles harbour (2) (3) (4) (5). Although the range has expanded northwards since the 1950s (4) (6), the species has disappeared from several former nesting sites in Mexico (2) (4).
After breeding, the elegant tern disperses north along the coast, to northern California and southern British Columbia, later moving south again to spend the winter along the Pacific coast of Central and South America, as far south as Chile (2) (3) (4) (6).Top
Elegant tern habitatTop
Elegant tern status
Classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List (1).Top
Elegant tern threats
In the past, the elegant tern has been greatly affected by egg-collecting, particularly on Isla Rasa (2) (5). Current threats include disturbance at nesting sites from urban development, tourism, predators such as rats, cats and feral dogs, and extensive mining for guano, as well as entanglement in fishing gear and competition with fisheries (2) (3) (4) (5).
The highly restricted breeding range of the elegant tern makes it particularly vulnerable (3) (4) (5) (6), and the species is also subject to large population fluctuations, thought to be caused by the effects of El Niño on prey abundance, and probably compounded by overfishing (3) (5). In particular, the breeding success and dispersal patterns of the elegant tern in southern California appear to be related to the availability of the northern anchovy. Rising coastal water temperatures may shift the abundance and distribution of this prey species, so impacting the elegant tern (3) (4). Climate change, with its potential effects on ocean temperatures and on the frequency and intensity of El Niño events, may therefore pose a great threat to elegant tern populations in the future.Top
Elegant tern conservation
The elegant tern’s main breeding colony at Isla Rasa became a sanctuary in 1964, helping to reduce egg-collecting and so successfully stem the tern’s population crash at this site (2) (3) (4). Further conservation measures recommended for the species include monitoring population trends, ensuring effective protection of all breeding colonies, taking measures to protect colonies from disturbance, and researching the links between climate, fisheries, prey availability and elegant tern breeding success (3) (4) (5). Wardening and regular patrols of nesting sites are needed in the breeding season, and measures need to be taken to protect colonies from tourists, such as providing roped trails (3) (4). The elegant tern has been relatively little studied in comparison to other tern species, and basic data is urgently needed on its biology, ecology, behaviour and population trends (3).Top
Find out more
To find out more about the elegant tern and its conservation see:
For more information on this and other bird species please see:
AuthenticationThis information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact: firstname.lastname@example.orgTop
More »Related species
Play the Team WILD game
MyARKive offers the scrapbook feature to signed-up members, allowing you to organize your favourite ARKive images and videos and share them with friends.
Terms and Conditions of Use of Materials
Copyright in this website and materials contained on this website (Material) belongs to Wildscreen or its licensors.
Visitors to this website (End Users) are entitled to:
End Users shall not copy or otherwise extract, alter or manipulate Material other than as permitted in these Terms and Conditions of Use of Materials.
Additional use of flagged material
Green flagged material
Certain Material on this website (Licence 4 Material) displays a green flag next to the Material and is available for not-for-profit conservation or educational use. This material may be used by End Users, who are individuals or organisations that are in our opinion not-for-profit, for their not-for-profit conservation or not-for-profit educational purposes. Low resolution, watermarked images may be copied from this website by such End Users for such purposes. If you require high resolution or non-watermarked versions of the Material, please contact Wildscreen with details of your proposed use.
Creative commons material
Certain Material on this website has been licensed to Wildscreen under a Creative Commons Licence. These images are clearly marked with the Creative Commons buttons and may be used by End Users only in the way allowed by the specific Creative Commons Licence under which they have been submitted. Please see http://creativecommons.org for details.
Any other use
Please contact the copyright owners directly (copyright and contact details are shown for each media item) to negotiate terms and conditions for any use of Material other than those expressly permitted above. Please note that many of the contributors to ARKive are commercial operators and may request a fee for such use.
Save as permitted above, no person or organisation is permitted to incorporate any copyright material from this website into any other work or publication in any format (this includes but is not limited to: websites, Apps, CDs, DVDs, intranets, extranets, signage, digital communications or on printed materials for external or other distribution). Use of the Material for promotional, administrative or for-profit purposes is not permitted.