Illinois Natural History Survey - University of Illinois

Common tern
Sterna hirundo

 

Taxonomy
Occurence in Illinois
Status
Habitat associations
Guilds
Food-habits
Environmental associations
Life history
Management practices
References


TAXONOMY

 

  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Aves
  • Order: Charadriiformes
  • Family: Laridae
  • Genus: Sterna
  • Species: Sterna hirundo
  • Authority: Linnaeus

Comments on taxonomy:
Other names: bass gull, lake erie gull, mackerel gull, red-shank, sea-swallow, summer gull, Wilson's tern *03*.

 


OCCURENCE IN ILLINOIS

Early May-late May, late July-early Oct. Common migrant and rare summer resident on Lake Michigan. Fairly common migrant in remainder of state *01*. Only known nesting colony in Ill. along Lake Michigan at Commonwealth Edison's Waukegan generation station *23,24,25*.

 


STATUS

Items in bold indicate applicable categories
Forest Service Categories: S = recommended for regional sensitive status, F = forest listed species, M = management indicator species

Federal Status:

Endangered Threatened Proposed for listing
Candidate for proposal Recovery plan approved Recovery plan received (USFWS)
Recovery plan in preparation Under notice of review Delisted
Migratory EPA indicator Forest Serv.- Shawnee species

State Status:

Endangered Threatened Proposed

Other:

Game Furbearer Nongame protected
Sportfish Commercial Pest None of the above

Comments on status:
Is named in Illinois Endangered Species Act 1977. For more information see *02*. Also protected under Illinois Wildlife Code, 1971 *29* and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, 1918 *28*.

 


HABITAT ASSOCIATIONS

Items in bold indicate applicable categories

General habitat:

Unknown Terrestrial Aquatic Riparian

USFS timber inventory forest size class:

Unknown Unstocked Seedling Sapling
Seedling/sapling Pole Mature Over mature

Land use and land cover:

Unknown   Urban Residential
Commercial
Industrial
Transportation, communication
Complex industrial/commercial
Mixed
Other
Agricultural Crop, pasture
Orchards, groves, nurseries
Feedlot
Other
Rangeland Herbaceous
Shrub and brush
Mixed
Forestland Deciduous
Evergreen
Mixed
Water Stream
Lake
Reservoir
Bay
Wetland Forest
Non-forest
Barren Salt flat
Beach
Sand
Rock

Mine
Transit
Mix

 


Forest cover types: No records.

Associated tree species: No records.

National wetland inventory classifications:

SystemSubsystemClassSubclassWater regime modifiersWater chemistry
Lacustrine Limnetic Open water of unknown bottom type   Permanent nontidal Freshwater
Lacustrine Littoral Beach/bar Cobble/gravel Permanent nontidal Freshwater
Lacustrine Littoral Beach/bar Sand Permanent nontidal Freshwater
Lacustrine Littoral Flat Cobble/gravel Permanent nontidal Freshwater
Lacustrine Littoral Flat Sand Permanent nontidal Freshwater
Lacustrine Littoral Forest   Permanent nontidal Freshwater
Lacustrine Littoral Rocky shore Bedrock Permanent nontidal Freshwater
Lacustrine Littoral Rocky shore Boulder Permanent nontidal Freshwater
Lacustrine Littoral Scrub/shrub   Permanent nontidal Freshwater
Riverine Tidal Beach/bar Cobble/gravel Permanent nontidal Freshwater
Riverine Tidal Beach/bar Sand Permanent nontidal Freshwater
Riverine Unknown perennial Open water of unknown bottom type   Permanent nontidal Freshwater

Comments on species-habitat associations:
Nesting in Illinois occurs only in the proximity of Lake Michigan *27*. Common terns are known to frequent sand or pebble beaches, stone or rocky shores, grassy uplands, or even areas with dense vegetation *02,04,07*. Large areas of open water are essential for feeding.

Important plant and animal association: Ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis).
Ring-billed gulls prey on nestlings and crowd common terns off essential breeding habitats. Also, increase anxiety levels of terns resulting in nest or colony abandonment *09*.

High value habitats

HabitatStructural stageSeason
Lakes Not applicable
(HVAL-HAB cover)
Spring/summer
Beaches Grass-forb Spring/summer
Lake Michigan Special habitat Spring/summer
Lake shore Special habitat Spring/summer
Large river Not applicable
(HVAL-HAB cover)
Spring
Large river Not applicable
(HVAL-HAB cover)
Fall
Beach Special habitat Spring/summer
Lakes Not applicable
(HVAL-HAB cover)
Fall
Lakes and ponds Not applicable
(HVAL-HAB cover)
Spring
Lakes and ponds Not applicable
(HVAL-HAB cover)
Fall
Foredune Grass-forb Spring/summer
Lake shore Special habitat Fall
Beach Special habitat Fall

Species-habitat interrelations: Type (open water, preferrably large lake or river) function (feeding) value (high) season (spring, summer, fall). Type (shoreline) function (breeding) value (high) season (spring, summer). In Illinois, common terns have nested only in the proximity of Lake Michigan *02,27*. During migration have been seen near large lakes and large rivers *01,25,26*. The only nesting colony in Illinois is located a few hundred yards from Lake Michigan on a pebbly substrate containing patches of sweet clover and thistle *23*. See *06* for habitat preferences and requirements.

 


GUILDS

Feed-guilding:

HabitatStructural stageSeasonFeed-guilds
Lakes and ponds Not applicable
(HVAL-HAB cover)
Spring Water surface- arthropods
Water surface- invertebrates other than zooplankton or arthropods
Water surface- fish
Water column- fish
Lakes and ponds Not applicable
(HVAL-HAB cover)
Fall Water surface- arthropods
Water surface- invertebrates other than zooplankton or arthropods
Water surface- fish
Water column- fish
Lake Michighan Not applicable
(HVAL-HAB cover)
Fall Water surface- arthropods
Water surface- invertebrates other than zooplankton or arthropods
Water surface- fish
Water column- fish
Lake Michigan Not applicable
(HVAL-HAB cover)
Spring/summer Water surface- arthropods
Water surface- invertebrates other than zooplankton or arthropods
Water surface- fish
Water column- fish
Large river Not applicable
(HVAL-HAB cover)
Spring Water surface- arthropods
Water surface- invertebrates other than zooplankton or arthropods
Water surface- fish
Water column- fish
Large river Not applicable
(HVAL-HAB cover)
Fall Water surface- arthropods
Water surface- invertebrates other than zooplankton or arthropods
Water surface- fish
Water column- fish

Comments on feed-guilding:
The common tern is sometimes thought to feed exclusively on small fishes, but adults may feed on insects and other invertebrates when first arrive on breeding grounds.

Breed-guilding:

HabitatStructural stageSeasonBreed-Guilds
Beaches Special habitat Spring/summer Terrestrial surface, bare ground (sand to rubble)
Terrestrial surface, boulder
Terrestrial surface, herbaceous litter
Terrestrial surface, grass and grasslike vegetation
Terrestrial surface, forb vegetation
Terrestrial surface, beaches (mud, sand, rock) without hydrophytes
Lake shore Special habitat Spring/summer Terrestrial surface, bare ground (sand to rubble)
Terrestrial surface, boulder
Terrestrial surface, herbaceous litter
Terrestrial surface, grass and grasslike vegetation
Terrestrial surface, forb vegetation
Terrestrial surface, beaches (mud, sand, rock) without hydrophytes
Foredune Grass-forb Spring/summer Terrestrial surface, bare ground (sand to rubble)
Terrestrial surface, boulder
Terrestrial surface, herbaceous litter
Terrestrial surface, grass and grasslike vegetation
Terrestrial surface, forb vegetation
Terrestrial surface, beaches (mud, sand, rock) without hydrophytes

Comments on breed-guilding:
Breeds on ground, substrate may vary from bare gravely, sandy soils and rock to sparsely vegetated *04*. Islands are preferred nesting grounds *04,06,07*. See *07* for great lakes.

 


FOOD-HABITS

Trophic level is CARNIVORE

Food itemLife stage/plant part
Invertebrates Unknown
Insecta Unknown
Osteichthyes (bony fishes) Unknown
Clupeiforms (herrings) Unknown
Cypriniformes (carps, minnows, loaches) Unknown
Important:
Osteichthyes (bony fishes) Unknown
Clupeiforms (herrings) Unknown
Juvenile:
Insecta Unknown
Osteichthyes (bony fishes) Unknown
Clupeiforms (herrings) Unknown
Cypriniformes (carps, minnows, loaches) Unknown
Adult:
Invertebrates Unknown
Insecta Unknown
Osteichthyes (bony fishes) Unknown
Clupeiforms (herrings) Unknown
Cypriniformes (carps, minnows, loaches) Unknown

Comments on food Habits: 
General: The common tern primarily eats small fishes but occasionally takes insects and other invertebrates when arrive on breeding grounds but eat only fish during breeding season *06*.
Juvenile: Juveniles are thought to be fed only fish *06*. Adopt adult habits when fledge.
Adult: See comments for general food-habits.


ENVIRONMENTAL ASSOCIATIONS

General:

  • pH: see comments
  • Total dissolved solids: see comments
  • Biodegradable organics: clean waters that have not been polluted
  • Aquatic habitats: sandy beaches
  • Aquatic habitats: sandbars
  • Aquatic habitats: rocky offshore islands
  • Aquatic habitats: sandy offshore islands
  • Aquatic habitats: vegetated offshore islands
  • Aquatic habitats: rocky beaches
  • Vegetation mosaics/edges: see comments
  • Vegetation successional stage: see comments
  • Unknown

Limiting:

  • pH: see comments
  • Total dissolved solids: see comments
  • Biodegradable organics: clean waters that have not been polluted
  • Vegetation successional stage: see comments

Egg

  • Unknown

Feeding juvenile:

  • Biodegradable organics: clean waters that have not been polluted

Resting juvenile:

  • Aquatic habitats: sandy beaches
  • Aquatic habitats: sandbars
  • Aquatic habitats: rocky offshore islands
  • Aquatic habitats: rocky beaches

Feeding adult:

  • Biodegradable organics: clean waters that have not been polluted

Resting adult:

  • Aquatic habitats: sandy beaches
  • Aquatic habitats: sandbars
  • Aquatic habitats: rocky offshore islands
  • Aquatic habitats: rocky beaches

Breeding adult:

  • Aquatic habitats: sandy beaches
  • Aquatic habitats: sandbars
  • Aquatic habitats: rocky offshore islands
  • Aquatic habitats: sandy offshore islands
  • Aquatic habitats: vegetated offshore islands
  • Vegetation successional stage: see comments

Comments on environmental associations:
General: See comments on species habitat interrelations and comments on breeding adults.
Feeding juvenile: See [FA].
Resting juvenile: Chicks make "scrapes" in which they sun themselves *06*. When able to fly, have perching places away from ternery where parents feed them. Are known to perch on objects floating in the water *06*.
Feeding adult: This species is associated with large bodies of open water (in Illinois, Lake Michigan) from which they obtain small fishes, etc.
Resting adult: Adults rest and sun themselves on beaches or sandbars in large flocks *04*. During breeding season each breeding adult has a place in territory where it stands when not on the nest *06*. May perch in places outside territory such as rocks, which may be mildly defended *06*. May perch on objects floating in water *06*.
Breeding adult: Nest site variable: preferred places isolated and adjacent to foraging grounds. Usually sand or pebble beaches sparcely vegetated foredunes, sandspit, islands. See *06,07* for prime habitat descriptions and limitations.


LIFE HISTORY

Origin: Native *01,20*.

Physical description: 13-16 Inches long; wingspread 31 inches, weight approx. 4 1/2 oz. Breeding plumage: white with blackcap; white rump contrasting with grey mantle; pure white tail, dark only along outer edges; dark wing tips; red-orange bill with black tip. Immature and winter adult: black cap incomplete but does extend around back of head; bill blackish *03,21*. Closely resembles Forster's tern. See *03* for known hybrids.

Reproduction: Breeding season: are present in Great Lakes from late April-Aug. *05* and nest from late May-mid June *07*; hatching date for Great Lakes approx. June 1 *05*. Incubation period: 23-27 days *27*, 23-26 days *06*, both parents incubate, female more than male *03,04,06,18*. Begins with 1st egg layed *06*. Mean clutch size = 3 (1-5) *03,04,06*. Eggs are pale to olive buff, heavily spotted. Spots brown and vary in size. Average dimensions: 40.0 x 30.0 mm, 18.3 gm. *06*. Common terns usually raise 1 brood per year although 2 broods may be raised *04*. Will lay replacement clutch *04*. Ritualized courtship occurs during a period approx. 10 days prior to copulation but varies *06*. See *06* for complete description. It is thought the male establishes a territory (for preferred territories see *06,07, 11*) and coaxes a female onto it, sometimes taking several days to secure a mate. Common terns may pair with the same mate year after year *06*. Copulation may occur on territory; on common ground in the ternery, or outside the ternery on beaches, rocks or other places. It is unclear who chooses nest site (see *06*). The nest appears to be built by both sexes. It consists of a scrape or slight depression in soil or sand which is smoothed and shaped by turning of the body. Nest usually lined with grasses, sea shells, or bits of seaweed *03,06*. Eggs reported layed at intervals of 1 day *04*, 2 days *06* and interval of 2 days between 1st and 2nd and 1 day intervals after that *18*. Eggs hatch at intervals of 1 day or more *06*. Nest relief may be ritualized *06*. Male feeds female while incubating *18*. Young are precocial and covered with down at hatching; wt mean=11.4 gm *06*. For hatching success see *10,17*. Chicks not fed until 2nd day when fed small fishes and depend on parental feeding for at least 6 wks. after fledging *27*. See *06* for chick development and *27* for postfledging behavior. Chicks fledge at approx. 21-22 days *10,15* and fly at 28-30 days *03,06*. Common terns exhibit deferred maturity initially breeding in 3rd or 4th year (see *13,14,19*). Reproduction may continue until death with peak productivity at approx. 4 years *12* and maximum reproductive life-span appears to be 20 years *14*.

Behavior: Common terns are highly colonial during breeding and non- breeding season participating in social flocking behaviors (see *06*). Social dominance not apparent but sexual dominance may exist (see *06*). Common terns are territorial when breeding and very defensive. Territory size varies with habitat, nests may be widely scattered or approach lower limits of tolerance at approx. 17 inches *06*. Site tenacity and group adherence are exhibited and increase with age (see *05,13,14*). Home range information not available. Common terns seen feeding 2-6 km from colony *27*. Common terns diurnal and roost on beaches, or similar places at night *04,06,27*. Dispersion of young terns described in *04,27*. For breeding and winter distributions see *03*.

Limiting factors:The greater proportion of common tern populations occur on the atlantic coast contributing little or no immigration to the small Great Lakes populations. For affect coupled with low reproductive rate see *05*. See *06* for descriptions of weather, vegetational succession; *08,18*. Food supply; *08,09* nesting habitat; pollution *05,09*; as limiting factors. Enemies include rats, skunks, cats, weasels, stray dogs, snakes, ants, gull spp., corvids, owls (see *06*). There are narrow limits to the optimal environment of the common tern *06*. This species lacks stability in the face of a changing environment due to its rigid behavior. Tern spp. are overspecialized *06*.

Population parameters: The only nesting colony in Illinois is <50 individuals *23*. The relative trend for Great Lakes populations is generally down (see *05,08,09,10*) for Mass. See *16*. For great lakes see *08*. Survival rates include: postfledging - 4 yrs.=10% With annual survival thereafter 83% *07,16*. First year mortality is the most severe, sometimes as high as 100% *10,11,12,14*. Age structure for Mass.: 90 of breeding population between 3 and 10 years of age *14*. 1.6% of hatchlings return to breed in 1st year; 15.7% breed 2nd yr.; <20% breed 3rd year *13*. If population is to maintain itself at least 20% of fledged young must survive to breed at age 4 *14*. Austin (1956) estimated 2 yng./pair must be fledged to maintain the common tern population (see *15,19*). Average lifespan is approx. 9 1/2-10 years *06,13*. Oldest recorded individual in Mass. was approx. 24 yrs. *14* and 25 yrs. in England *03*.

 


MANAGEMENT PRACTICES

Beneficial:

  • Maintaining undisturbed/undeveloped areas
  • Maintaining early stage of ecological succession
  • Maintaining natural areas and nature preserves
  • Maintaining unique or special habitat features (wetlands, snags, caves, cliffs, talises, etc.
  • Preserving endangered species habitat
  • Preserving sensitive species habitat
  • Performing special survey prior to prescription
  • Performing field survey prior to prescription
  • Controlling land use and human activities
  • Seasonal restriction of human use of habitats
  • Controlling pollution
  • Controlling pollution in aquatic habitats
  • Creating artificial islands or rafts
  • Developing/maintaining lakes and ponds
  • Creating/maintaining islands within permanent impoundments
  • Controlling undesirable vertebrate species (feral dogs, etc.)
  • Providing protection from predators
  • Restricting human disturbance during migration, breeding, and nesting
  • Estimating/maintaining nesting and escape cover
  • Developing islands for waterfowl

Adverse:

  • Recreational development
  • Channelization
  • Dredging
  • Providing public access (develop roads, trails, parking areas or provide legal access)
  • Applying pesticides
  • Application of pesticides

Existing:

  • Providing protection from predators

Comments on management practices:
The protection of breeding colonies from predators and human disturbance is needed for successful nesting in Illinois. The preservation and proper management of the entire beach shoreline and offshore islands of Lake Mich. is needed to insure the continued survival of the common tern and other associated shorebirds in Illinois *02*. See *07,23* for other management practices. The common tern is protected by the Illinois Endangered Species Act 1977 *02*, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act 1918 *28*, and the Illinois Wildlife Code *29*.

 


REFERENCES

0. MALMBORG, PATTI L. 1984. ILL. NAT. HIST. SURV., 607 E. PEABODY DR., CHAMPAIGN, ILL. (217)333-6846.

1. BOHLEN, H.D. 1978. AN ANNOTATED CHECK-LIST OF THE BIRDS OF ILLINOIS. ILL. STATE MUS. POP. SCI. SER. VOL. IX.

2. BOWLES, M.C., V.E. DIERSING, J.E. EBINGER & H.C. SCHULTZ, EDITORS. 1981. ENDANGERED AND THREATENED VERTEBRATE ANIMALS AND VASCULAR PLANTS OF ILLINOIS. ILLINOIS DEPT. CONSERV. 189 P + 6 APPENDICES.

3. TERRES, J.K 1980. THE AUDUBON ENCYCLOPEDIA OF NORTH AMERICAN BIRDS. ALFRED A. KNOPF. N.Y. P. 468.

4. BENT, A.C. 19 . LIFE HISTORIES OF NORTH AMERICAN BULLS & TERNS. U.S. NATL. MUS. BULL. NO. 113. PP. 236-249.

5. HAYMES, G.T. & HANS BLOKPOEL. 1978. SEASONAL DISTRIBUTION AND SITE TENACITY OF THE GREAT LAKES COMMON TERN. BIRD-BANDING 49(2):142-151.

6. PALMER, R.S. 1941. A BEHAVIOR STUDY OF THE COMMON TERN (STERNA HIRUNDO HIRUNDO L.). PROC. BOSTON. SOC. NAT. HIST. 42:1-119.

7. SCHARF, W.C. 1979. NESTING AND MIGRATION AREAS OF BIRDS OF THE GREAT LAKES (30 APRIL TO 25 AUGUST 1976). U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE, OFFICE OF BIOLOGICAL SERVICES. FWS/OBS-77/2. 113 P.

8. BLOKPOEL, H. & G.B. MCKEATING. 1978. FISH-EATING BIRDS NESTING IN CANADIAN LAKE ERIE AND ADJACENT WATERS. CAN. WILDL. SERV. PROG. NOTES. NO. 87. 12 P.

9. MORRIS, R.D. & R.A. HUNTER. 1976. FACTORS INFLUENCING DESERTION OF COLONY SITES BY COMMON TERNS (STERNA HIRUNDO). CAN. FIELD. NATUR. 90:137-143.

10. MORRIS, R.D., R.A. HUNTER, AND J.F. MCELMAN. 1976. FACTORS AFFECTING THE REPRODUCTIVE SUCCESS OF COMMON TERN (STERNA HIRUNDO) COLONIES ON THE LOWER GREAT LAKES DURING THE SUMMER OF 1972. CAN. J. ZOOL. 54:1850-1862.

11. BURGER, J. AND F. LESSER. 1979. BREEDING BEHAVIOR AND SUCCESS IN SALT MARSH COMMON TERN COLONIES. BIRD-BANDING 50(4):322-337.

12. AUSTIN, O.L. 1942. THE LIFE SPAN OF THE COMMON TERN (STERNA HIRUNDO). BIRD-BANDING 13:159-176.

13. AUSTIN, O.L. 1945. THE ROLE OF LONGEVITY IN SUCCESSFUL BREEDING BY THE COMMON TERN (STERNA HIRUNDO). BIRD-BANDING 16:21-28.

14. AUSTIN, O.L. AND O.L. AUSTIN, JR. 1956. SOME DEMOGRAPHIC ASPECTS OF THE CAPE COD POPULATION OF COMMON TERNS (STERNA HIRUNDO). BIRD-BANDING 27:55-66.

15. NISBET, I.C.T. AND W.H. DRURY. 1972. MEASURING BREEDING SUCCESS IN COMMON AND ROSEATE TERNS. BIRD-BANDING 43:97-106.

16. NISBET, I.C.T. 1978. POPULATION MODELS FOR COMMON TERNS IN MASSACHUSETTS.

17. LECROY, M. AND S. LECROY. 1974. GRWOTH & FLEDGING IN THE COMMON TERN (STERNA HIRUNDO). BIRD-BANDING 45:326-340.

18. NISBET, I.C.T. 1973. COURTSHIP FEEDING, EGG-SIZE AND BREEDING SUCCESS IN COMMON TERNS. NATURE 241:141-142.

19 .DICONSTANZO, J. 1980. POPULATION DYNAMICS OF A COMMON TERN COLONY. J. FIELD. ORNITHOL., 51(3):229-243.

20. AMERICAN ORNITHOLOGIST'S UNION. 1982. THIRTY-FOURTH SUPPLEMENT TO THE AMERICAN ORNITHOLOGIST'S UNION'S CHECK-LIST TO NORTH AMERICAN BIRDS. SUPPL. TO AUK VOL. 99(3).

21. PETERSON, R.T. 1980. A FIELD GUIDE TO THE BIRDS. HOUGHTON-MIFFLIN CO., BOSTON.

22. LANGHAM, N.P.E. 1972. CHICK SURVIVAL IN TERNS (STERNA SPP.) WITH PARTICULAR REFERENCE TO THE COMMON TERN. J. ANIM. ECOL. 41:385-395.

23. HUFFSTODT, J. 1982. NESTING COMMON TERNS. ILLINOIS AUDUBON BULL. 202:26-2.

24. KLEEN, V. 1982/83. FIELD NOTES: BREEDING SEASON. ILLINOIS AUDUBON BULL. 203:31.

25. KLEEN, V. 1981/82. FIELD NOTES: BREEDING SEASON. ILLINOIS AUDUBON BULL. 199:30.

26. MARTIN, A.C., H.S. ZIM & A.L. NELSON. 1951. AMERICAN WILDLIFE & PLANTS. MCGRAW-HILL BOOK CO., INC., NEW YORK.

27. NISBET, I.C.T. 1976. EARLY STAGES IN POSTFLEDGING DISPERSAL OF COMMON TERNS. BIRD-BANDING 47(2):163-164.

28. U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERV. 1983. CODE OF FEDERAL REGULATIONS. TITLE 50. WILDLIFE & FISHERIES. CHAPTER 1. PP. 11-18. 50 CFR 10.13. LIST OF MIGRATORY BIRDS. SPEC. PUBL. FEDERAL REGISTER. GENERAL SERV. ADMIN. OCT 1.

29. ILLINOIS DEPARTMENT OF CONSERVATION. 1980. CONSERVATION LAWS. CH. 61. WILDLIFE ART. II. PAR. 2.2. REPRINTED FROM ILL. REVISED STATUTES, 1979. WEST PUBL. CO., ST. PAUL, MN. 120 PP.

 


 

Next ---- Previous



Illinois Natural History Survey

1816 South Oak Street, MC 652
Champaign, IL 61820
217-333-6880
cms@inhs.illinois.edu

Terms of use. Email the Web Administrator with questions or comments.

© 2019 University of Illinois Board of Trustees. All rights reserved.
For permissions information, contact the Illinois Natural History Survey.

Staff Intranet
Login