Black Tern

Standing out among the white shorebirds, the breeding population of Black Terns happens to have a stunning mix of black and charcoal gray on their plumage. Their neat pointed wings which frame their delicate shape allows them to be immensely agile. They flutter about before swooping down to scoop out fish from water surfaces and pounce when they see flying insects. From that perspective, they are no different from Swallows. 

The species forms a small, loose colony of similar birds. Even wintering is done with this small flock along coastlines in the tropics. Available as they are in huge parts of the world, the North American population has cut down to half in the last couple of decades. 

Today, we’ll learn about: 

  • Black Tern color patterns, songs, and size
  • Black Tern behavior, habitat, and diet
  • Black Tern life cycle, nesting, and migration range


Black Terns Color Pattern

Black Terns are easily one of the prettiest bird species. It is as if someone decided on a color scheme and then decided to paint it over the birds. While the base color is black for this species, as is obvious by the name, the various shades of black on their body more than makeup for it. For example, breeding Black Terns have an overall dark black head, chest, and belly. Yet, the color of their wings starts with a dark black and lightens to a dark gray color before nodding off to an ashy gray and then finally, white color at the wingtips. 

Then, the underparts and the overall tail color are white with bits of black streaks over them. The bill is black and so are the eyes. Even the leg is black in color, though it can take ages to find the legs. The overall black colors are so distinct that you can never mistake them for another Tern species. 

Non-breeding adult Black Terns look nothing like breeding ones in color patterns though. Suddenly, you see a white head with some dark spots instead. A noticeable dark spot is on the ear. The bill, legs, and eyes are still black in color. Then, the wings are still dark gray but appear somewhat faded. During molting, their appearance becomes a mess. Black and white are seen all over their body in no discerning pattern. 

For juvenile Black Terns, the back is a mix of dark gray and brown with paler bars on the wings. The skullcap is black and so is the earmark. The head, neck, chest, belly, and underparts are white though. 

Description And Identification

Around freshwater marshes, Black Terns stand out for the simple fact they are Black Terns. Seabirds happen to be white usually but you don’t see that as the case for this species. While they have white on their body, during the breeding season, their plumage is mostly black in color. In fact, the black color is so deep and royal looking, that no other species has been known to shade the same pattern of shades. 

Add to that they are a small seabird with an adorable face and large wings, Black Terns are too easy to identify. The blackheads stand out too easily. However, when you do identify them, try not to get too close. They are a species busy in their happenings. 

The calls are another way for you to recognize them. Remember, their calls happen to be clipped “kiiik” sounds. It is so distinctive for them that it is hard to mistake it with another’s. 

Black Tern Song 

The most commonly heard call from this species is a loud “kik”. It is a short, clipped sound that isn’t repeated much. The ones that are nesting tend to make a longer form of this call. The sound turns more “keyy” or “kyew dik” and so on. 

Black Tern Size

The delicate build of this seabird species makes Black Terns appear more vulnerable than they are. Small in size, they have a pointy bill further accentuated by long and pointier wings. The tail is narrow and has a fork shape to it. Then, like a lot of seabirds, the legs of terns are also short. 

The Least Tern, as you can guess by the name, are shorter than Black Terns. Yet, they appear quite small compared to Common Terns. 

In length, the longest Black Tern might be 26 cm. The lowest of their length stops at 23 cm. In weight, the healthier bunch is 60 g while the delicate bunch is 50 g. Then, the wings, long as they are, have a wingspan of 60 cm. The ones that have shorter wings still have a generous length of 57 cm. 

Black Tern Behavior

Instead of coming down to the ground or water surfaces, this bird species flies around in the air, performing displays as they keep an eye out for their prey. Then, when they notice one on the water surface, they rush down. They dip their head into the shore or water to get to the object of their diet. If they see flying insects in the air, in case they can’t find food in water,  they are tempted to catch the insect instead. They never really dive deep into the water to get to their prey, preferring to pick stuff out from the surface instead. 

What Black Terns Eat

The diet of Black Terns is centered around fish and insects. Inbreeding grounds, rely on insects to get them through the season. This would mean earthworms, leeches, spiders, etc. Frogs, tadpoles, and crustaceans are also successful parts of the diet family. 

When they are migrating or stuck near the sea during winter, they will mostly munch on fish. Insects and crustaceans are also eaten by them in those cases. 

Consider buying bird seeds to bring more birds or feed your current birds with the best bird seeds ever.

Where Black Terns Live And Habitat

The usual habitat of Black Terns includes lakes and fresh marshes. The most change you see in their habitat is during migration season when they frequent the coastal waters instead. 

During nesting, freshwaters are preferred, especially the ones surrounded by marsh vegetation. Open waters and small marshes also work as replacements along with meadows of the wet kind. Migration season, coasts, and large lakes are their favorite habitats to show up in. During tropical coastal regions, they are seen in estuaries and salt lagoons. Mostly though, they spend their time offshore. 

Here is the state bird of Michigan where the Black tern typically lives.

Range and Migration

When you think of breeding habitats of Black Terns, think of freshwater marshes. Now, these freshwater body breeders can be found in Europe, the West of Asia, almost all of Canada, or pretty much the entirety of the northern United States. 

The most obvious route of migration for this species is the interior side of North America, which they use to fly north. The later part of summer sees huge flocks of them moving to the Atlantic coast on the east before they make a swift turn towards the south. Those coming from the west move south instead, specifically to the Mexico coast. Then, they head further south, moving offshore. Black Terns choose to winter in South America’s coasts in the north and northwest. 

If you thought the black tern migration was cool check out the migration for Artic Tern.

Black Tern Life Cycle

Black Terns lay about 4 eggs at most. Recently, they have been laying only 2 eggs more frequently. In North America, a lot of these eggs don’t get the chance to hatch at all. The eggs themselves are either olive or a pale buff shade in color. The botching spots are either dark black or brown. The eggs are warmed by both sets of parents, who have the job for 21 to 22 days before the eggs become ready to hatch. 

Rapid development occurs in the young. At about 2 to 3 days, they can step out of the nest. They don’t wander far and remain nearby. Then, after 19 to 25 days since they were born, their wings are strong enough to let them fly. Even so, the parents feed them for 1 to 2 weeks more. In a year, they have one brood. The southern region might see 2 broods in a year. 


Black Terns form small colonies to breed in. Often, these loose colonies have their cousin species, Forster’s Terns as members. At the start of the season, do this high spiraling flight where their colony is before making their way back. They might do this with small groups or in pairs. 

For the nest, they either build it on the marsh, somewhere in low elevation or make a floating house with plant items. The nest might be close to the water but on dry ground or on debris and old houses. Both parents participate in building the nest. A good amount of marsh plants is used to build the nest or a shallow depression might be formed on the ground. For it to not be completely empty, a bit of vegetation is added to the mix. The nests are often built too close to the water bodies. As a result, a lot of the eggs end up damp. 

Anatomy of a Black Tern

The anatomy of Black Terns is worth talking about. At first, they appear too regal. A surprise considering it is a small seabird. Yet, the proportion of this species mixed with the royal color patterns makes them handsome individuals to look at. When we say they have a small body, they do actually have a small size. They are slender shaped and their belly doesn’t protrude unlike a lot of bird species. Instead, a small head gives way to a smaller neck, though perfect for the body size. Then, you have a finely shaped chest and belly moving to a forked tail. 

The tail, albeit small, has fine color patterns to make up for it. If the tail is short, the legs are shorter. It seems a wonder that they can stand with those short legs at all. If the upper part of the body wasn’t so lightweight, they probably wouldn’t be able to. Then, there are the wings. The fine, long wings are curved, which is why it is not obvious at first how long it is. When they are flying though, it becomes obvious exactly how regal-looking the species is with their wings. 

Of course, we can’t forget about the large eyes. Despite having large eyes, it might be a feature on Black Terns that are easily overlooked. This is mostly due to the dark color of their eyes that is easily lost amidst the dark black color of their head. You don’t realize they have eyes at all at first until you inspect their face closely. The bill, though a small, straight one, has enough stretch in it to easily catch fish and feed on frogs. 

Final Thoughts

Wander around freshwater marshes long enough and you will come across this species of foragers performing acrobatics. They seem to prefer familiar grounds, nesting in the same place they did the year before. So, if you follow location maps, that should give you a good idea of where you will find colonies of Black Terns. During migration season, they become harder to get a hold of. They move quicker during this period and don’t seem to stay in one region for long. They can show up in all the wetlands that fall in their route during this period but their wings make them move soon. 

A bird species that used to be abundant in North America, the population has taken a devastating dip since the 1960s. A big cause of this has been attributed to the disappearing nesting habitats as more and more wetlands are drained. Add to that the chemicals from farms that make their way into the marshes have also led to unsuccessful hatching attempts. Then, if we look at their wintering grounds, overfishing in those areas can also be a contributing factor. 

As such, even if you want to see them, maintaining a respectful distance as a birder is a must. This species has certainly dealt with enough, though the population is still stable. 

Learn more about the Tern birds by watching this informative video. If you want to see cooler places check out Glacier National Park.


Bird Watching Academy & Camp Subscription Boxes

At the Bird Watching Academy & Camp, we help kids, youth, and adults get excited and involved in bird watching. We have several monthly subscription boxes that you can subscribe to. Our monthly subscription boxes help kids, youth, and adults learn about birds, bird watching, and bird conservation.

Bird Watching Binoculars for Identifying Black Tern 

The most common types of bird-watching binoculars for viewing Black Terns are 8×21 binoculars and 10×42 binoculars. Bird Watching Academy & Camp sells really nice 8×21 binoculars and 10×42 binoculars. You can view and purchase them here.

Black Tern Stickers

Stickers are a great way for you to display your love for bird watching and the Black Tern. Here is the sticker pack we sell with a Black Tern sticker.

If you like stickers consider buying a mug vthat can help you remember about birds!

Bird Feeders For Black Tern

There are many types of bird feeders. Bird feeders are a great addition to your backyard. Bird feeders will increase the chances of attracting birds drastically. Both kids and adults will have a great time watching birds eat at these bird feeders. There are a wide variety of bird feeders on the market and it is important to find the best fit for you and your backyard.

Best Birdhouses for Black Tern

There are many types of birdhouses. Building a birdhouse is always fun but can be frustrating. These 4 birdhouses have become our favorites. Getting a birdhouse for kids to watch birds grow is always fun. We spent a little extra money on these birdhouses but they have been worth the higher price and look great.

Another birdhouse that you should consider buying is the Robin Birdhouse. Also look into buying a birdbath here are some ideas that can help you in deciding on a birdbath.

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