Least Tern
Sternula antillarum

Physical Description

  • Small bird with narrow, pointed wings and sharp, bracket-shaped tail
  • Gray feathers, with black edge on outer flight feathers, visible in flight
  • Breeding adults have black crown and white forehead
  • Thin yellow legs and a thin yellow bill in adults (darker in juveniles)


  • United States (both coastal and major rivers), Mexico, down to northern South America
  • The Caribbean


  • Found along seacoasts, bays, beaches, lagoons, estuaries, rivers, and lakes
  • Breeds on sandy and gravelly beaches or on lake and riverbanks


  • Small fish, crustaceans, insects, small mollusks, worms
  • Aerial divers to plunge for prey


  • Cats, dogs, coyotes, crows, skunks, foxes, and raccoons all prey on tern nests
  • Burrowing owls, peregrine falcons, and American kestrels feed on terns

Interesting Facts

  • They are the smallest tern in North America, hence the name Least Tern
  • Least terns nest on the ground. Their population declined by 88% between 1966 and 2015, mainly due to humans encroaching on their nesting habitat. Never disturb a nest if you see one in the ground on the beach! 

Sources: AllAboutBirds.org; Audobon; American Bird Conservancy; Los Padres ForestWatch

Photo: Thomas A. Blackman

To hear a Least Tern’s calls, click here!

Back To Map