The royal tern is a majestic, monogamous bird that generally inhabits coastal regions. They have a slender body and sharp wings with a wingspan of around 49-53 in (124-134cm). This bird can be identified by the distinctive black crest on top of its head. However, the black crest sheds during summer and fall, leaving their plumage a bit bare.
A juvenile non-breeding royal tern can be identified by how they hunt. They don't fly across large water bodies but prefer to walk on the ground and hunt for small fish in shallow waters. They also have a whiter plumage near their forehead, with only the back slightly darker. A grown large tern will fly across the waters up to a distance of around 300 ft (91m) and swoop in on its prey.
They are migratory birds and move in groups that then disperse once they reach their destination. On the west coast, these birds travel from California and Mexico to South America or Peru for the winter. On the eastern coast of America, they travel from North Carolina to Panama or the Caribbean Islands.
If the royal tern interests you, check out the ostrich and shoebill as well!
What do they prey on?
Small fish like minnows, sardines, anchovies, shrimps, and crabs
What do they eat?
Average litter size?
How much do they weigh?
12–16 oz (350–450 g)
How long are they?
18–20 in (45–50 cm)
How tall are they?
What do they look like?
Gray-white body, bright orange bill, and black legs
What are their main threats?
Hunting and trapping
What is their conservation status?
Where you'll find them
Tropical and subtropical shores, lagoons, mangrove, and estuaries
Both coasts of America, southern Atlantic Coast, Caribbean islands, and Brazil
Royal Tern Interesting Facts
What type of animal is a royal tern?
The royal tern thalasseus maximus is a type of sea bird belonging to the order Charadriiformes.
What class of animal does a royal tern belong to?
The royal tern thalasseus maximus belongs to the class of Aves.
How many royal tern are there in the world?
It is believed that the population of royals terns in North America is between 100,000 and 150,000 though a worldwide estimation is not available.
Where does a royal tern live?
The location of these birds covers a large portion of the world as the population is found on both American coasts, along the Atlantic Coast, and in the Caribbean. Along the Atlantic Coast, they are found in North Carolina and as far north as Long Island, New York. On the western US coast, they are found in southern California. This species is also found along the Mexican coast in South America.
What is a royal tern's habitat?
The royal tern thalasseus maximus is found along coastlines, beaches, bays, estuaries, and mangroves. They are rarely found inland unless pushed back by storms. They prefer living along muddy flats, beaches, and coral islands. They choose secluded islands for laying their eggs. They prefer marine or saline waters, though in some cases they have been found in inland lakes with muddy strips running across them.
Who do royal tern live with?
While foraging for food, royal terns may prefer to be single, in a small group, or in packs of hundreds. Their colonies roost together and form similar habits known as a 'dread'. These tern colonies are extremely noisy and crowded. Royal terns have extremely shrill calls and are very loud while hunting and courting.
How long does a royal tern live?
Royal terns have an average lifespan of 27 to 28 years. However, royal terns lay their eggs on the ground which makes their young chicks very susceptible to predators. The young chicks have an extremely high mortality rate. Sometimes, these baby royal terns get caught in fishing nets as well.
How do they reproduce?
The thalasseus maximus royal tern matures at approximately four years of age. It is a monogamous bird and breeds with a single partner. The breeding season differs based on their location. For North American royal terns, the breeding season is April to August whereas the southern royal terns prefer October to March. Courtship occurs while flying with the male and female flying in circles around one another. The male offers a fish which the female may choose to accept. It is unclear whether the bonded family pairs only for the breeding season or for life. Pairs of birds then selects a sandy flat along the coast where it nests within a small hole or scrape. Females lay one to two eggs. The nests are reinforced around the edges before the hatching of the egg and the hatching may take around 25 to 30 days. The colonies choose to group and nest together, which means after hatching, thousands of chicks are found along a single coast. The colonies form a creche or group where all the young gather together once they are three to four days old. Despite thousands of chicks in a creche or group, a family pair will only take care of their own young. In fact, if other pairs of chicks come into their nest, the parents may peck it away. The parents catch smaller fish and feed the young regurgitated, mashed food. These birds are very hands-on parents. The chicks will step out to search for food with their parents after around a month of age.
What is their conservation status?
The IUCN currently classifies these birds as that of Least Concern. Historically, these birds were under threat due to hunting, trapping, and foraging for their eggs. However, current laws prohibit such egg foraging for their conservation. As of now, there are no special conservation efforts ongoing to save these birds. Their habitat is threatened due to the pollution and dredging of coastal areas and bays. Coastal nests are sometimes swept away by the ocean. Despite this, the overall number of royal terns around the world is within an acceptable range.
Royal Tern Fun Facts
What do royal terns look like?
The royal tern has a grayish back, a white underbelly, a bright orange beak and belongs to the order Charadriiformes. Their head is crowned by a black crest. The shagginess of the head crest varies from species to species with the Caspian tern having a fuller head crest and darker beak. As children, royal terns have a yellowish beak and body with black spots. Their feet are black in color. The North American royal tern has a longer beak than those found in southern California or Africa.
How cute are they?
Terns are an extremely cute species. While a group of these birds can be very loud, they are an attractive species with a clean plumage. The colonies include small, soft chicks with spotted feathers. Their simple plumage makes them look extremely approachable while the crest gives them an air of majesty.
How do they communicate?
Like most bird species, these birds communicate with different types of vocal calls. They have many different types of calls for mating, calling out to one another, and expressing dissatisfaction. Their calls are shrill, high-pitched, and loud.
How big is a royal tern?
Terns are around 18-20 in (45-50cm) long. They are the same size as seagulls or barn owls.
How fast can a royal tern fly?
Terns are extremely graceful and fast flyers who can glide over large distances. The average speed of a tern is 24 mph (58 kph), which is very very fast! The royal tern is known to speed dive into the water to catch prey.
How much does a royal tern weigh?
Terns weigh an average of 0.7-0.9 lb (350-450 g).
What are their male and female names of the species?
A male and female bird are both known as a 'tern'. The male bird is slightly larger in size than the female.
What would you call a baby royal tern?
Baby royal tern birds are called 'nestlings'. Once they are old enough to explore flying, they are called 'fledglings'.
What do they eat?
Terns are piscivores birds that feed on smaller fish, leeches, marine worms, small crustaceans, and insects.
Would they make a good pet?
Terns are wild birds and as such not meant to be kept as pets. They are seabirds and prefer to remain around beaches and coasts. The Wildlife Protection Act forbids the keeping of wild birds as pets. On the west coast of America, tern eggs were often foraged which has led to stricter rules regarding their conservation.
Did you know...
The tern nest typology contributes to their high juvenile death rate. The royal tern creates a nest directly on the ground of sandy beaches while breeding. They dig a small scrape in the sand, add some twigs and leaves, and lay eggs within it. They then defecate around the edge of the nest. It is believed that this prevents the water from seeping in.
Terns are migratory species and can cover large distances. While the species of American birds only travel within a set distance within the continent, some species travel as far as 12,000 miles (19,000 km)! The American birds migrate north to south during summer and south to north during winter. East coast terns do not travel to the west and vice versa.
How to distinguish a royal tern from a Caspian tern?
Caspian terns have a redder bill whereas royal terns have a bright, orange bill. The bill of the royal tern is also less bulky and more streamlined. The best time to distinguish these birds is during winter or the breeding season. Both birds lose their black crest during this time, but the Caspian tern retains some of it. The royal terns have black legs, whereas the Caspian tern has orange or yellowish legs. Both royal and Caspian terns are much larger than other tern breeds like sandwich terns which are smaller and have a black bill.
Why would a royal tern have a band on its leg?
To study birds, scientists often band their legs. This method is known as bird banding and it helps them to keep a track of the bird population, their migratory patterns, and poachers. The color of the band and the leg that the band is present on indicates the species and sex of the bird. The United States Geological Survey keeps a track of these banded birds. Terns in and around the Atlantic are banded during their fledgling stage and data like weight, age, sex is stored in the Bird Banding Laboratory.
Here at Kidadl, we have carefully created lots of interesting family-friendly animal facts for everyone to discover! Learn more about some other birds including secretary bird or bowerbird.
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