Foraging primarily during the day, the little tern usually feeds at low tide on small fish and crustaceans, as well as insects, annelid worms and molluscs (2) (4) (5) (6) (7). This species generally forages singly, or in small, loose flocks, although it may congregate in large groups of many thousands of individuals where food is particularly abundant (6) (7).
The little tern most often hunts for prey in the shallow waters of channels, estuaries and lagoons, in the surf on beaches, or along the line of the advancing tide (2) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8). Typically, it catches its prey by plunging into water from around three to ten metres above the surface, after first hovering above the water to seek out prey (2) (5) (6) (8). The little tern will frequently seek out shoals of small ‘bait fish’, which attract larger predatory fish, performing rapid vertical plunge-dives to capture its prey before the fish disperse (8). The little tern may also glean prey from the surface of the water, and may take insects from vegetation while in flight (5) (6) (8).
The little tern generally breeds between May and July in Europe and Asia, and around April in Africa (5) (7). In Australia, the little tern has an extended breeding season from April to early January in the Northern Territory, and from late August to January or February in the east (6). It usually breeds in solitary pairs or in small groups of up to around 15 pairs, although it is occasionally reported to form much larger breeding colonies (7).
The male little tern initiates the courtship ritual by presenting a fish to the female (3). The nest is a bare scrape or shallow depression on the ground, usually on beaches of sand, pebbles, shingle, shell fragments, coral fragments or rock above the high tide-line (3) (4) (6) (7) (9). It may sometimes nest in more marshy habitats, close to estuaries, or adjacent to coastal lakes (4) (7). Both adults incubate the clutch of 1 to 3 well-camouflaged eggs, for a period of 17 to 22 days (2) (3) (4) (6) (9). The little tern chicks are fed with a liquid mix of fish for around three days, after which the adults bring back small whole fish that are fed to the juveniles head first (3). Both adults actively defend the nest against intruders during the fledgling period, which lasts for between 17 and 22 days (2) (4) (9).