Hellenica World

Sterna hirundo

Sterna hirundo, Photo: Michael Lahanas

Cladus: Eukaryota
Supergroup: Opisthokonta
Regnum: Animalia
Subregnum: Eumetazoa
Cladus: Bilateria
Cladus: Nephrozoa
Cladus: Deuterostomia
Phylum: Chordata
Subphylum: Vertebrata
Infraphylum: Gnathostomata
Superclassis: Tetrapoda
Classis: Aves
Subclassis: Carinatae
Infraclassis: Neornithes
Parvclassis: Neognathae
Ordo: Charadriiformes
Subordo: Lari
Familia: Sternidae
Genus: Sterna
Species: Sterna hirundo
Subspecies: S. h. hirundo - S. h. longipennis - S. h. minussensis - S. h. tibetana


Sterna hirundo Linnaeus, 1758


* Systema Naturae ed.10 p.137

Vernacular names
Български: Речна рибарка
Česky: Rybák obecný
Dansk: Fjordterne
Deutsch: Fluss-Seeschwalbe
Ελληνικά : Ποταμογλάρονο
English: Common Tern
Español: Charrán común, Gaviotín Golondrina
Français: Estorlet
Galego: Carrán común
Magyar: Küszvágó csér
Italiano: Rondinella di mare
日本語: アジサシ
한국어: 제비갈매기
Lietuvių: Upinė žuvėdra
Nederlands: Visdief
‪Norsk (bokmål)‬: Makrellterne
Polski: Rybitwa rzeczna
Português: Andorinha-do-mar-comum, Trinta-réis-boreal
Slovenčina: Rybár riečny
Suomi: Kalatiira
Svenska: Fisktärna

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 coastal tropical and subtropical regions. It is sometimes known as the sea swallow. The term "Commic Tern" refers to birds which are not seen well enough to positively determined if they are Common or Arctic Terns.

Taxonomy, systematics, and distribution

The Common Tern was one of the many species first described by Linnaeus in his 1758 work Systema Naturae. Its species' name is the Latin hirundo, meaning "swallow". Four subspecies are generally recognized:

* S. h. hirundo described by Linnaeus, is found in Americas, Europe, Africa, and Middle East.
* S. h. minussensis described by Sushkin in 1925, breeds in central Asia to Southern Tibet, winters mainly in Indian Ocean.
* S. h. longipennis described by Nordmann in 1835, breeds north of tibetana and winters from South East Asia to Australia.
* S. h. tibetana described by Saunders in 1876, breeds in high altitude lakes south and east of minussensis's range to Sichuan, winters in Indian Ocean.


This medium-sized tern is 34–37 cm long with a 70–80 cm wingspan. It is most readily confused within its range with the similar Arctic Tern (Sterna paradisaea), Roseate Tern (S. dougalli), Antarctic Tern (S. vittata), and South American Tern (S. hirundinacea).

Its thin, sharp bill is red with a dark tip. Its longish legs are also red. Its upperwings show a dark primary wedge, unlike the Arctic Tern, 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 the 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 that of the Arctic Tern, but lower-pitched and less strident.

Common Tern

Common terns are known to reach an age of 23 years or more on occasion (Austin, 1953). The Common Tern is one of the species to which the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (AEWA) applies. The old Scottish word for the Common Tern is pictar, occasionally encountered in Scotland and the Maritime Provinces of Canada.

Behaviour and ecology

Food and feeding

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. Generally, they are found in flocks. The tibetana subspecies can be found singly on in pairs in inland lakes and rivers.[2]


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. The nest varies from a scantily lined scratching in the sand or mud to a good nest made of grass, reeds, rubbish etc.[2] The eggs number two or three and vary. 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. The offering of fish by the male to the female is part of the courtship display.


1. ^ BirdLife International (2004). Sterna hirundo. 2006. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. IUCN 2006. www.iucnredlist.org. Retrieved on 11 May 2006. Database entry includes justification for why this species is of least concern
2. ^ a b Baker, ECS (1929). Fauna of British India. Birds. Volume 6 (2 ed.). Taylor and Francis, London. pp. 129–132. http://www.archive.org/stream/BakerFbiBirds6/BakerFBI6#page/n165/mode/1up.


* Austin, Oliver L. Sr. (1953): A Common Tern at Least 23 Years Old. Bird-Banding 24(1): 20. PDF fulltext
* Harrison, Peter (1988): Seabirds (2nd ed.). Christopher Helm, London ISBN 0-7470-1410-8
* National Geographic Society (2002): Field Guide to the Birds of North America. National Geographic, Washington DC. ISBN 0-7922-6877-6
* Olsen, Klaus Malling & Larsson, Hans (1995): Terns of Europe and North America. Christopher Helm, London. ISBN 0-7136-4056-1

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