Common Tern

Species Name: Sterna hirundo


Species Distribution in Massachusetts


Federal Rank: None

Massachusetts State Rank: Special Concern

Habitat Description

Generally nests on sandy or gravelly islands and barrier beaches, but also occurs on rocky or cobbly beaches and salt marshes. It prefers areas with scattered vegetation, which is used for cover by chicks. Along the Atlantic coast in the breeding area, it usually feeds within 1 km of shore, often in bays, tidal inlets, or between islands; it may forage as far as 20 km from the breeding colony.

Threats to Survival

Hundreds of thousands were killed along the Atlantic coast by plume-hunters in the 1870s and 1880s, reducing the population to a few thousand at fewer than ten known sites by the 1890s. In Massachusetts, only 5,000 to 10,000 pairs survived, almost exclusively at Penikese and Muskeget Islands. The state’s population grew to 30,000 pairs by 1920, following protection of the birds in the early part of the century. Populations subsequently declined through the 1970s, reaching a low of perhaps 7,000 pairs, largely as a result of displacement of terns from nesting colonies by Herring Gulls and, later, by Great Black-backed Gulls. Since then, numbers have edged upwards (Figure 2). In 2005, 15,447 pairs nested at 34 sites in the state. About 90% of these birds were concentrated at just three sites: Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge (S. Monomoy and Minimoy Islands); Chatham (9,747 pairs); Bird Island, Marion (1,857 pairs); and Ram Island, Mattapoisett (2,278 pairs). While populations in the state are relatively well-protected during the breeding season, trapping of birds for food on the wintering grounds may be a source of mortality for Common Terns.

Actions Recommended to Ensure Survival

Limiting predation and gull populations that outcompete the terns are the most effective means of controlling populations. Annual monitoring and management to track progress, identify threats, manage vegetation, prevent gulls form encroaching on colonies, and remove predators are also required.