The Common Tern (Sterna hirundo) is a seabird of the tern family Sternidae. This bird has a circumpolar distribution breeding in temperate and sub-arctic regions of Europe, Asia and east and central North America. It is strongly migratory, wintering in the subtropical and tropical oceans. It is sometimes known as the sea swallow.
This species breeds in colonies on coasts and islands and often inland on suitable freshwater lakes. This latter practice is assisted by the provision of floating "tern rafts" to give a safe breeding area. It lays two to four eggs. Like many white terns, it is very defensive of its nest and young and will attack humans and other large predators, but unlike the more aggressive Arctic Tern rarely hits the intruder, usually swerving off at the last moment.
Like all Sterna terns, the Common Tern feeds by plunge-diving for fish, from either the sea or freshwater lakes and large rivers. It usually dives directly, and not from the "stepped-hover" favoured by Arctic Tern. The offering of fish by the male to the female is part of the courtship display.
This is a medium-sized tern, 34-37cm long with a 70-80cm wingspan. It is most readily confused within its range with the similar Arctic Tern Sterna pardisaea and Roseate Tern Sterna dougalli.
Its thin sharp bill is red with a dark tip. Its longish legs are also red. Its upperwings show a dark primary wedge, unlike Arctic, in which they are uniformly grey. Its long tail extends only to the wingtips on the standing bird, unlike Arctic and Roseate Terns, which extend past the wingtips. It is not as pale as Roseate Tern, and has longer wings.
In winter, the forehead and underparts are white. Juvenile Common Terns show extensive ginger coloration and lack the scaly appearance of juvenile Roseate Terns.
The call is a clear piping, like Arctic Tern but lower pitched and less strident.
The old Scottish word for the Common Tern is pictar, occasionally encountered in Scotland and the Maritime Provinces of Canada.
* "National Geographic" Field Guide to the Birds of North America ISBN 0792268776
* Seabirds by Harrison, ISBN 0-7470-8028-8
* Terns of Europe and North America by Olsen and Larsson, ISBN 0-7136-4056-1
* Common Tern videos on the Internet Bird Collection