Whiskered tern (Chlidonias hybrida)

Synonyms: Chlidonias hybridus
French: Guifette moustac
GenusChlidonias (1)
SizeWingspan: 74 – 78 cm (2)
Weight83 – 100 g (2)

Classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

A more slender bird than many other tern species, this fork-tailed, marsh-dwelling bird has two distinct plumages (4). In breeding or summer plumage, the whiskered tern has a dark grey body, white cheeks and a black crown (5). In winter, the plumage turns white on the underside and pale grey on the upperparts (5). The forehead also turns white and the remainder of the crown becomes flecked with white thus appearing grey. The bill and legs of the whiskered tern are red, a striking feature that allows this species to be distinguished from other terns (5). Juvenile whiskered terns have a white underbelly, with a gingery back speckled with dark black and brown (5).

The whiskered tern breeds in a number of areas in southern Europe, India, south-west and south-east Asia, south-east Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Populations that breed in cooler northern locations migrate south for winter, to tropical Africa, India or Indonesia, a journey that can cover up to 5,000 miles (2).  

The whiskered tern lives mainly in inland marshes, pools and lakes, where there is substantial vegetation (4). It feeds over lakes, marshes, costal lagoons, tidal mudflats and estuaries, as well as rice fields and other farm fields (4).

The breeding season of the whiskered tern extends from May to early June in Europe (3), November to December in Australia, and December in Tanzania (4), during which time it lives in loose colonies of between 10 and 10,000 pairs (3) (6). Each pair constructs a nest, which is actually a raft of vegetation that either sits on the bottom of very shallow water or floats on the surface of slightly deeper water (4), with each nest situated between one and five metres apart from other nests (3) (4). Like nest building, incubation of the eggs and care of the hatchlings is shared by the male and female (6). Most northern populations of the whiskered tern are fully migratory and will leave for their wintering grounds after breeding, where they will remain until April or May (3). Tropical populations of the whiskered tern do not undertake large, seasonal migrations (3).

The whiskered tern feeds on crustaceans such as shrimps, amphibians such as frogs, small fish, insects and insect larvae (3) (6). It commonly forages in large mixed species flocks or in small groups, but occasionally it will search for food independently (3). Feeding in a large colony, whiskered terns will collectively attack any animal that appears to be posing a threat (6). Other bird species sometimes nest within a whiskered term colony so as to take advantage of this anti-predator behaviour (6).

The whiskered tern is currently not considered to be threatened with extinction (1). Despite this, however, it does encounter threats in some areas of the world. In Italy, coypus (invasive rodents) destroy whiskered tern nests; in India, humans collect and sell its eggs, and in the Ukraine the eggs are collected by fishermen (3).

In some areas of the world specific breeding sites for the whiskered tern have been set up, including two Special Protection Areas for whiskered terns in the Medzibodrozie and Senne areas of Slovakia (7).

Find out more about the Special Protection Areas for the whiskered tern at:

For more information on this and other bird species please see:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. IUCN Red List (March, 2010)
  2. Mead, C. and Ogilvie, M. (2007) The Atlas of Bird Migrations: Tracing the Great Journeys of the World’s Birds. Struik Publishers, Cape Town.
  3. BirdLife International (March, 2010)
  4. Del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1996) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 3: Hoatzin to Auks. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  5. Bakaria, F., Rizi, H., Ziane, N., Chabi, Y. and Bańbura, J. (2002) Breeding ecology of whiskered terns in Algeria, North Africa. Waterbirds: The International Journal of Waterbird Biology, 25(1): 56-62. 
  6. Birds in Backyards (November, 2009)
  7. Life Nature Project (November, 2009)