White-winged tern (Chlidonias leucopterus)

White-winged tern in flight
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White-winged tern fact file

White-winged tern description

GenusChlidonias (1)

The white-winged tern (also known as the white-winged black tern) undergoes fascinating aesthetic alterations in its plumage, ranging from its highly characteristic form when breeding to a more subdued form when moulting (2). During breeding, its velvety black head, neck, breast and belly, almost white tail and rump, and pale grey upperwings with a broad, white leading edge, make this bird both striking and distinctive. It also has a red bill and short, red legs (3) (4). Its non-breeding plumage is rather less conspicuous, being largely grey on the upperparts and tail, with a white rump, white head and neck, and a black-and-white streaked cap (3) (4). Its legs and feet remain dark red (3), while its bill becomes a less conspicuous black (4). Juvenile white-winged terns are similar in appearance to non-breeding adults, but have an entirely black cap (3).

Also known as
White-winged black tern.
Guifette leucoptère.
Length: 22 cm (2)
63 g (2)

White-winged tern biology

This species feeds on both aquatic and terrestrial invertebrates, particularly insects (6). Occasionally, the white-winged tern may also take a small fish, or less frequently an amphibian. Unlike other terns, this species picks prey items off the surface of the water or from vegetation rather than diving for food, possibly because it is swifter and more agile in flight than other terns (6).

The white-winged tern usually breeds between April and August (5), during which time reasonably small colonies of between 20 and 40 pairs nest together (6). The nest consists of a shallow cup situated in a mound of water weed, which is placed on floating vegetation, usually in water 30 to 120 centimetres deep (5). Two to three smooth, slightly glossy eggs are laid in each clutch (6), and hatch after 18 to 22 days (5).


White-winged tern range

The white-winged tern has an extensive range, extending from central and south-east Europe to central Asia and New Zealand. At the beginning of winter it migrates in large flocks to Africa, south Asia and Australia. It is found from sea level up to around 2,000 metres (5).


White-winged tern habitat

In common with other marsh terns (birds in the genus Chlidonias), the white-winged tern inhabits inland freshwater marshes and lakes during the breeding season (6) (7). Over winter the species inhabits a larger variety of habitats including rocky coasts, rivers, rice fields, lagoons and dry farmland (8).


White-winged tern status

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

IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern


White-winged tern threats

The white-winged tern is not currently considered to be at risk of extinction (1). However, it is susceptible to avian influenza, and the recent outbreaks in China are of particular concern as China lies in the white-winged tern’s migration flight path, providing the possibility that it may come into contact with infected domestic birds (9). Some white-winged tern nesting sites, such as in south-eastern Queensland, Australia, are close to human populations and could be disturbed by human activities (3)


White-winged tern conservation

In south-eastern Queensland, conservation measures have been implemented to mitigate the threat of disturbance of important nesting sites. These include the erection of signs to inform the public of the importance of the area for terns, and management of the sites to ensure their protection (3). The white-winged tern is also one of the species to which the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (AEWA) applies. This agreement seeks to protect migratory species that are dependent on wetlands, and encourages range countries to engage in a wide range of conservation actions (10).

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View information on this species at the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre.

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To learn more about conservation of the white-winged tern in Australia see:

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This species information was authored as part of the Arkive and Universities Scheme.


A cold-blooded vertebrate of the class Amphibia, such as a frog or salamander, which characteristically hatches as an aquatic larva with gills. The larva then transforms into an adult with air-breathing lungs.
A category used in taxonomy, which is below ‘family’ and above ‘species’. A genus tends to contain species that have characteristics in common. The genus forms the first part of a ‘binomial’ Latin species name; the second part is the specific name.
Animals with no backbone, such as insects, crustaceans, worms, molluscs, spiders, cnidarians (jellyfish, corals, sea anemones), echinoderms, and others.


  1. IUCN Red List (March, 2010)
  2. Robinson, R.A. (2005) BirdFacts: Profiles of Birds Occurring in Britain and Ireland. BTO Research Report 407, BTO, Thetford.
  3. Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts. (2010) Chlidonias leucopterus. In: Species Profile and Threats Database. Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, Canberra. Available from:
  4. Peterson, R.T., Mountfort, G. and Hollom, P.A.D. (1993) Birds of Britain and Europe. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York.
  5. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J. and Christie, D.A. (1996) The Handbook of the Birds of the World. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  6. Snow, D.W. and Perrins, C.M. (1998) The Birds of the Western Palearctic. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  7. Campbell, B. and Lack, E. (1985) A Dictionary of Birds. Buteo Books, Vermillion, South Dakota.
  8. BirdLife International (November, 2009)
  9. Shortridge, K.F. and Melville, D.S. (2006) Domestic poultry and migratory birds in the interspecies transmission of avian influenza. In: Boere, G.C., Galbraith, C.A. and Stroud, D.A. (Eds.) Waterbirds around the World. The Stationery Office, Edinburgh, UK.
  10. AEWA (December, 2009)

Image credit

White-winged tern in flight  
White-winged tern in flight

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