Least Tern

Least Tern

Sternula antillarum
Life Span
15-20 yrs
39-52 g
22-24 cm
48-53 cm

The Least tern, as its name suggests, is the smallest of the Americas’ terns. Groups of them often hover near the surface of the water with their quick, flickering wing beats, catching small fish and invertebrates. They also plunge-dive, as do other terns, hovering above their prey and then suddenly dropping into the sea. Populations of this bird are endangered in many regions due to human impact on nesting areas, particularly competition for the use of beaches. That said, in the east in some areas near the coast these terns are now successfully nesting on gravel roofs.








Serial monogamy






starts with



Least terns breed in North America, as well as locally in the north of South America. They winter mainly along northern South America’s coast, including Brazil to Colombia. They favor open habitat and are typically found near any bodies of water, such as sea coasts, gravel and shell and beaches, islands, bays, lakes, lagoons, estuaries, unobstructed river channels, and salt flats that are associated with reservoirs and rivers.

Climate zones

Habits and Lifestyle

Least terns fly over water to forage, hovering then plunging to catch prey that are just below the water's surface. Sometimes they will dip down to pick up prey from the surface of the water or from land, and they may catch insects on the wing. During the breeding season, typically they will forage close to the location of their nesting area. They may feed near to the shore of the open ocean - particularly near bay mouths or lagoons. Least terns travel four miles or more (6+ km) from their colony seeking the small fish that from a large part of their diet. This species lives and nests in colonies, parents within a colony defending their nesting territory against intruders. They will fly up into the air when alarmed, making an alarm call, and dive repeatedly at the intruder.

Seasonal behavior
Bird's call

Diet and Nutrition

Least terns are carnivores, they mostly eat small fish, like smelt, anchovy, surfperch and silversides (ray-finned fish), and also crabs, shrimp, barnacles, krill and some insects.

Mating Habits

20-22 days
3 months
1-3 eggs

These birds are serially monogamous, pairs staying together for the entirety of the breeding season. April to August is the main period for breeding and birds usually remain within the breeding territory between 3 and 5 months. Male least terns engage in a unique courtship ritual which involves a male offering a female food in the hope of her choosing him as a mate. Nests are just shallow scrapes in open sand, pebbles or soil, sometimes lined with grasses or pebbles. Although preferring sandy beaches for their nests, they will occasionally use a flat, gravel-covered rooftop instead. One to three eggs are laid, of a buff or pale green color with dark blotches. Both parents build nests, take part in incubating the eggs over a period of 20-22 days, and look after the young. The downy chicks hatch with their eyes open and can walk soon after. When they are a few days old, they move nearby to short vegetation. They start to fly when they are just under 3 weeks old, and may stay with their parents for as long as 3 months.


Population threats

Least terns are widespread and are common in places, but the nesting habit they prefer is sought after for residential development, human recreation, and alteration by the diversion of water, which interferes with nesting in many areas. This species for most states in North America is classified as either threatened, endangered, or of concern, due to loss of nesting habitat, the interior population having been federally listed since 1985 as endangered.

Population number

According to the New Mexico Avian Conservation Partners resource, the breeding population of the Least tern in North America numbers 60,000-100,000 and the population in New Mexico consists of only several breeding pairs. Overall, currently Least terns are classified as Least Concern (LC), however, their numbers today are decreasing.

Fun Facts for Kids

  • The call of the least tern is a high-pitched “zeep", "zreep,” or “kit.”
  • Least terns prefer a sandy beach for nesting, but will use a building’s flat gravel roof. But on sunny days hot tar amongst the gravel can burn chicks’ feet or get stuck in their down.
  • A group of these birds is called a "straightness" of terns.
  • The color of the Least tern’s bill, when it is ready to breed, is yellow and has a black tip, changing to a dull yellow-orange or a dusky gray or blackish at other times.
  • The defense behavior of adult Least terns when an intruder enters the nesting area, has earned them the name of “little striker.” They will dive bomb and defecate on intruders.
  • During extremely hot weather, a parent tern may soak its belly in water and then drip the cooling water onto their eggs or chicks.


1. Least Tern Wikipedia article - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Least_tern
2. Least Tern on The IUCN Red List site - http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/22694673/0
3. Xeno-canto bird call - https://xeno-canto.org/669354

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