Fairy Tern

Fairy Tern

Sternula nereis
Population size
Life Span
17 yrs
70 g
25 cm
70-80 cm

Weighing just 70 grams as an adult, the Fairy tern is one of Australasia’s smallest terns. At the time of the breeding season, this little seabird has a black head, an orange/yellow bill, upperparts of pale gray, a white throat, forehead, chest and belly, and orange legs. Outside of the breeding season, the head fades to mottled black and white, and its bill and legs become less bright in color. Male and female have a similar appearance, and juveniles look like non-breeding adults.


Fairy terns are found on the coast from Dampier Archipelago in Western Australia, south to Tasmania and Victoria, with individuals sometimes found on the east coast. They are most commonly found in Western Australia and are rare in New South Wales, the Northern Territory and Queensland. Some may be found in New Caledonia and New Zealand. They occur on coastal beaches, offshore and inshore islands, sheltered inlets, harbors, estuaries, lagoons and sewage farms. They like both saline and fresh wetlands, as well as near-coastal terrestrial wetlands, such as lakes and salt-ponds.



Climate zones

Habits and Lifestyle

Fairy terns hunt while flying, hovering above the surface of the sea at three to ten meters, before they plunge steeply into the water, to emerge seconds later. They do not often go far out to sea and are usually seen where predatory fish feed on schools of small fish. These birds are often seen in pairs flying around trees and they use trees for breeding, but do not make a nest. The migratory behavior of these birds is not well understood. Some populations, such as in Tasmania, migrate over winter, while others seem to stay year round in the same area.

Diet and Nutrition

Fairy terns are carnivores (piscivores), they mostly eat fish, but also crustaceans, snails and plant material.

Mating Habits

starts in September, egg-laying: October-January
21 days
30 days
1-2 eggs

Fairy terns are monogamous breeders with long-lasting pair bonds. They are very loyal to their mates, their nest sites and their foraging areas. September is when courtship begins, with eggs being laid from late October to early January. Females are supplementary-fed by their mates before laying. In Australia these fairy terns breed in colonies, including some fairly large ones, but in New Zealand pairs usually nest alone, with several kilometers between nests. One to two eggs usually are laid each season, though if a clutch is lost, the pair generally re-nests. Both parents share incubation duties, which last for around 21 days. The chicks are on the move from day one. Both male and female feed and guard the young, the male providing most of the food. At about 30 days chicks fully fledge, being fed less and less often by their parents for one more month while learning to forage for themselves. Most family groups by this time have left their breeding estuaries.


Population threats

Over much of its range, fairy terns are subject to a number of threats, including human disturbance, predation from introduced species, habitat degradation due to farming and development, and extreme weather events.

Population number

According to the IUCN Red List, the total Fairy tern population size is around 2,500-9,999 mature individuals. Specific populations of this species have been estimated in these areas: in Australia: at up to 170 sites, fewer than 5,000 mature birds, in Western Australia fewer than 1,600 pairs, in Tasmania and in South Australia, a few hundred pairs, and in Victoria just a few pairs; in New Zealand: 35-40 pairs; in New Caledonia: 100-200 pairs. Overall, currently Fairy terns are classified as Vulnerable (VU) and their numbers today continue to decrease.

Fun Facts for Kids

  • Fairy tern adults and chicks, as well as eggs in nests, are camouflaged so well that you can pass by them without even knowing.
  • If their parents make alarm calls, the chicks freeze, blending into their surroundings, and predators are not able to find them.
  • Fairy tern nests are in areas of sand where there are mainly white, orange and gray shells, helping to conceal eggs, chicks and adults sitting on nests.
  • Terns are able to drink sea water.
  • If birds were able to earn frequent flyer miles, the most would definitely be earned by terns. Almost all of them migrate and some fly 25,000 miles one way.
  • When flying Fairy terns make a high-pitched 'zwitt'.


1. Fairy Tern Wikipedia article - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fairy_tern
2. Fairy Tern on The IUCN Red List site - http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/22694691/0

More Fascinating Animals to Learn About