With the grace typical of terns and a small breeding range in North America, the Roseate Tern is considered endangered in the northeastern U.S. and has been threatened with disturbance and habitat loss for many years. Common Terns are apparently needed to induce colonization of areas, and restoration efforts aimed at both Common and Roseate Terns have shown promise.
Roseate Terns do not breed until age three or four, and breed in most years, although if food is scarce they may skip a year. They sometimes return to breeding areas in subsequent years, and they have been known to live over 25 years in the wild.
On this page
Description of the Roseate Tern
The Roseate Tern has pale gray upperparts, white underparts, orange legs, and a black cap with black forehead.
Seasonal change in appearance
Winter birds have white foreheads.
Juveniles resemble breeding adults but have brownish upperparts.
Coastal bays and open ocean.
Forages by plunging into the water from the air.
Breeds in very local areas of eastern North America and winters in South America. Also occurs in Europe, Asia, and Australia.
Less aggressive than some other terns, the Roseate Terns does not strike intruders or hit them by defecation.
Male Roseate Terns feed females during courtship and egg-laying.
A soft call as well as a louder alarm call are given.
- Common and Arctic Terns are darker.
The nest is a scrape on the ground.
Color: Olive with darker markings.
Incubation and fledging:
– Young hatch at 21-26 days.
– Young fledge (leave the nest) in 27-30 days after hatching but remain with the adults for some time.
Bent Life History of the Roseate Tern
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Roseate Tern – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
STERNA DOUGALLI (Montagu)
I shall never forget the thrill of pleasure I experienced when I held in my hand, for the first time, a freshly killed roseate tern and admired with deepest reverence the delicate refinement of one of nature’s loveliest productions. The softest colors of the summer sky were reflected on its back and pointed wings, while its breast glowed with the faint blush of some rare seashell. The graceful outlines, the spotless purity of its delicate plumage, and the long tapering tail feathers made it seem like some ethereal spirit of the heavens which it was sacrilege for human hands to touch.
Having been always intimately associated on our Atlantic coast with the common tern, it has suffered with’ that species in the persecution inflicted on these birds by hunters for the millinery trade. It was everywhere threatened with extermination, and became extirpated in many localities until its range was much restricted. It formerly bred as far east as Maine, and even Nova Scotia, as recently as in 1912, but I believe it is no longer common north of Cape Cod. It seems to have disappeared soon after 1890 from the coasts of New Jersey and Virginia, where it was once abundant. It has profited, however, from the protection afforded the terns in favored localities, and is now increasing on the Massachusetts coast and elsewhere.
Spring: Audubon (1840) first saw this species in the Florida Keys, where he was told that it arrives about the 10th of April. Baird, Brewer, and Ridgway (1884) give the following interesting account of its arrival on Faulkner’s Island in Long Island Sound:
It makes its appearance about the 15th of May, seldom varying three days from this date. At first six or eight of these birds are seen well up in the fir. These hover over the island a while and then disappear. The next day the same individuals return, with an addition of 12 or more to their number; but none of them alight on the island until the third or fourth day. After this, if nothing disturbs them, their number increases very fast.
Its arrival on Muskeget Island, Massachusetts, is thus described by Mr. George H. Mackay (1895):
As far as I am aware sterna hirundo and S. dougafli first make their appearance in Muskeget waters any time after the first week in May, and they are remarkably constant in the time of appearing. In 1892 they arrived on May 10, in flocks of fifty or more, drifting sideways before a heavy southeast rain. storm. In 1893 they arrived on May 8, with light air from the west-northwest and clear weather. Twenty were first observed hovering over South Point, Muskeget Island, very high in the air. About 5 o’clock p. m. two were observed to come quite low down. The next day they were arriving in considerable numbers, flying high during the day time and settling down after sunset. The weather was clear, with a light southwest wind. On the 10th, at sunrise, the Wilson’s and roseate terns were rising in very large numbers from the northern middle part of Muskeget proper, the weather being clear, with a strong southwest wind. On the 11th they continued to increase. There was a strong southwest gale during the night, dying out in the forenoon.
Courtship: During the last week in May, while the countless hordes of terns are gathering on these breeding grounds, the roseate terns may be seen flying about in pairs or chasing each other in the air, with their long slender tail feathers streaming behind; or, in the dense flocks, resting and sunning themselves on the beach, their simple courtship may be seen. Both birds show their interest in each other by stretching their necks upward and strutting about with drooping wings and elevated tails; or standing side by side they exchange greetings. Finally the accepted suitor mounts his mate and stands squarely upon her back for a long time, with frequent interlocking of bills. The nuptial caress is most deliberate; and after it is over they stand close together, billing and cooing and preening each other’s plumage.
Nesting: The finest breeding colonies of roseate terns, so far as I know, are at Chatham and on Muskeget Island, Massachusetts. The most important of these is on Muskeget Island, a low sandy island lying between Nantucket and Marthas Vineyard, which has been more fully described under the common tern. On my various visits to this island I have always found roseate terns nesting here abundantly, although they have always been far outnumbered by the common tern. The nests of the common tern were scattered in various situations all over the island, and occasionally a few nests of roseate terns were found among them, but the main stronghold of the roseate terns was on the southern extremity of the island, separated from the main island by a long, narrow beach; here, except for a few scattering pairs of common terns, the whole population was made up of roseates. We determined this fact to our own satisfaction by trapping nine of the birds on their nests in snares made of very fine steel wire. This usually did not injure the birds at all, as we soon released them. The nests were closely congregated on the highest part of the point, particularly along the crest of a little ridge which rose abruptly from the beach. They were mostly well concealed in the thick growth of tall beach grass (Ammophila arundinacea), which grew luxuriantly at this end of the island. Some of the nests were hidden among the poison-ivy vines (Rhus radicans), or under the shade of herbaceous plants. Often the nests were arched over with the tall grass, having pathways leading to them, and almost always they were more or less under cover, in marked contrast to the nests of the common tern, which were always in open places. In many cases the eggs were laid on the bare sand, but generally a scanty nest was formed by scraping together a few pieces of dry grass or rubbish to partially! line a slight hollow in the sand. The method we employed for identifying the nests is the only sure way in a locality like this; it is seldom possible to see one of the birds sitting on its nest; for, as Mr.’ Mackay (1895) says:
The alarm Is given from bird to bird until it reaches those at the farthest end, who hasten to lend their vocal aid In driving off their common enemy, thus rendering it impossible to come to any conclusion regarding any particular nest and eggs. I have had roseates dart down at me and show every demonstration of anger and solicitude when I have been examining a Wilson’s tern’s nest and eggs, the identification of which I felt sure. I have also had the same experience with Wilson’s tern as the assailant when I have been busy over a roseate’s nest and eggs. It must not therefore always be assumed that the solicitous bird is the owner. As far as my observation shows I should say that not only do roseate and Wilson’s terns lay their eggs Indiscriminately at times in each other’s nests, but also care for each other’s young and make united battle against Intruders.
On Penikese and Weepecket Islands the roseate terns nest mostly in the beach grass, poison ivy, and rank herbage on the higher parts of the islands, where their nests are well hidden. In the summer of 1915 I visited a large and populous colony, consisting of many thousand pairs of common and roseate terns, which had recently been established near the extremity of Nauset Beach, on the mainland of Cape Cod, near Chatham, Mass. This is probably an overflow from the Muskeget colony. Here the roseate terns were nesting under similar conditions to those noted on Muskeget, mainly on the ridges or sand dunes heavily overgrown with beach grass, but surrounded by common terns nesting in the open. On Faulkner’s Island, in Long Island Sound, Baird, Brewer, and Ridgway (1884) say:
While some gather a few dry weeds or a little dry seaweed, others make only a hollow in the sand; and some deposit their eggs on the~stones without any nest at all.
Audubon (1840) found them breeding in considerable numbers along the shores of southern Florida. He writes:
At different times In the course of nearly three months which I spent among the keys I saw flocks of 20, 80, or more pairs, breeding on small detached rocky Islands, scantily furnished with grass, and In the company of hundred. of Sandwich terns. The two species appeared to agree well together, and their nests were intermingled. The full number of eggs of the present species is three. * * * They were deposited on the hare rocks, among the roots of the grasses, and left in fair weather to the heat of the sun. Like those of the common tern and other species they are delicious eating. The eggs of the Sandwich tern were more attended to during the day, but toward night hot~ species sat on their eggs.
In the Bahamas and West Indies they seem to nest in open situations, with Cabot’s and Sooty terns, laying their eggs in hollows in the sand, on bare ground, or on rocks without any attempt at concealment or at nest building.
Eggs: Some observers suggest that the roseate and common terns raise two broods in a season; fresh eggs are often found late in August, but these are probably laid by birds that have failed to raise their first broods. The usual set consists of two eggs; three are frequently found in a nest and rarely four. The larger sets ofte; though not always, show evidence of having been deposited by more than one bird.
The eggs of the roseate tern are similar to, and often indistinguishable from, those of the other small terns; but when a large series is compared with others the average difference is well marked. They will average a trifle longer and the markings are smaller and more evenly distributed, with fewer of the large bold markings when compared with a series of eggs of the common tern. There is less variation in the ground color, which ranges from “cream buff” to “cartridge buff” or “pale olive buff.” The darker and richer colors of other terns’ eggs are seldom, if ever, seen in this species. A majority of the eggs are evenly sprinkled with small spots or dots over the entire surface, either with or without an occasional larger spot; these spots are seldom large enough to be called blotches and never as large and conspicuous as they are on the eggs of the common tern. These markings are in the darker shades of brown from “warm sepia ” to “dark clove brown.” There are often numerous spots of various shades of violet, plumbeous or lavender gray, underlying the darker markings. In shape the eggs vary from ovate to elongate ovate, usually quite pointed. The shell is smooth, thin, and without luster. The measurements of 87 eggs, in the United States National Museum, average 42 by 30 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 45.5 by 31, 43.5 by 32, 38 by 30, and 44 by 27.5 millimeters.
The exact period of incubation was found to be 21 days by Prof. Lynds Jones (1906), who has also given us (1903) a good account of the process, as follows:
In two cases that were under careful observation for some time both parents performed the office of incubation in regular turn. The one that I judged to be the female brooded the eggs, tuckIng them carefully under her feathers, but the male merely stood above them, apparently shielding them from the burning sun, while the female went for a lunch and bath. The Incoming bird uttered a peculiar rattling sound Just before alighting some 20 feet from the nest, when the brooding bird got ~p and immediately flew away. The relief carelessly sauntered toward the nest, made believe picking up food when it reached the nest, then stood over it a moment before settling down, if the female. Neither bird remained on the nest over an hour; the male usually less than 40 minutes, not waiting for tile female to appear every time before leaving:
Young: In the same paper Mr. Jones gives us the results of his observations on the behavior of the young terns in the following words:
There Is no uniformity In the development of the instinct to assume protective attitudes. With some young there is no evidence of such an instinct while they remain in the nest, while with others there seems to be almost as soon as the shell is cast. All of the young from the beginning of the pinfeathers gave evidence of the instinct well developed. Some young left the nest two days after hatching; some remained for four days. When partly feathered birds on the uplands were taken from their biding places in the grass or bushes their tendency was to try to run away instead of hiding again when replaced on the ground. Those on the beach treated the same way would invariably take to the water If not prevented. Even the young upon which the pinfeathers were barely showing frequently took to the water and swum readily. In hiding the birds were content to emulate the ostrich, hiding only the head and often leaving the whole body exposed. They were always careful, however, to keep the white underparts well concealed.
Unlike the gulls, the terns do not swallow the food and then regurgitate for the young, but carry the fish in the beak directly to the young. After studying the feeding process at close range for some time I became convinced that the old birds do not stuff the fish down the throat of the young, but only thrust its head into the mouth far enough for the throat muscles to grip It, when the young bird swallows for himself. The sand launce (Ammodytes americanus) was the chief fish food,, probably because it is so soft and easily digested. A 4-inch fish could not manage to get wholly inside a 4-inch bird, so the tall was left sticking out for future consumption. Even with the young able to fly the fish’s head rested in the primitive gizzard, while the tall was scarcely more than concealed in the throat. Mr. Field Induced one Muskeget young common tern to part with his dinner of two young herrings and one sand launce. Usually but a single fish was found in the digestive tract of the young.
The downy young merely raised their heads and opened their mouths for food, when very hungry uttering a faint peep, but the young ones able to fly were made to dance for their dinner. With widely gaping mouth and wings held akimbo, they executed a surprisingly fine clog to their own piercing music. In one case a young bird called for lunch just 20 minutes after receiving a good-sized fish. He was not fed, however, until half an hour after his last lunch. I have repeatedly seen the old birds swallow three and four sand launces in rapid succession. This colony of 1,500 old birds and their 1,500 young must consume great quantities of the sand launce, yet the supply does not seem to diminish.
It was interesting to watch the old birds come in with a fish dangling from the beak. As it passed close along the beach each, young bird in turn clamored for the morsel. When the old bird approached the place where its young had been last seen it skimmed above the stones, halting now and then before a particularly vociferous youngster, then either passed on or circled back to look farther, finally either finding its own young or going to another place where another young had been left. I was eager to know how the old birds could recognize their own offspring among the multitude which looked exactly alike to me. It seemed incredible that they depended upon sight, or why should they almost actually touch the young each time before deciding the matter? I was forced to the conclusion that the sense of smell must play an Important part In the final determination.
Later in the season young birds were seen. following the old birds to when they fished, all the while loudly calling for food. I was prepared to see the morsel delivered while the birds were still flying, after the manner of the swallow, but It was never so done. The young, at least, must first rest upon the water or land, then the old usually settled for the moment of the delivery, the young bird, first shaking his feathers well before rising and following. During the second week in August young birds were to be seen and heard about Great Harbor and Penzance, but none appeared to be fishing for themselves. Up to this time, there appeared no evidence that either the old or young had begun to molt.
Plumages: The downy young of the roseate tern can be readily distinguished from the young of the other species, with which it is associated, by certain well-marked characters. Its general appearance is more grizzly, more finely and evenly sprinkled with smaller spots, whereas the young common and arctic terns are more boldly spotted with a more conspicuous pattern. The texture of the down is more hair-like, particularly on the heads, necks, and throats of the younger birds. In this respect and in the texture of the down on the back there is a striking resemblance to the young chick of the royal tern. In the newly hatched chick the downy feathers of the back and wings stand out separately, round and fluffy at the base, but tapering to a fine point at the tip. There are at least two distinct color phases in the downy young, brown and gray; in the brown phase the color varies from “pinkish buff” or “cream buff” in the youngest birds, to “cinnamon buff” or “chamois” in older birds; in the gray phase the color varies from “pallid neutral gray” to “pale neutral gray”; in both phases the upper parts, including the throat, sides of the neck, and flanks, are uniformly and thickly spotted with small spots of “dark neutral gray” or dull black. Only the central under parts are white. The dusky throat of the young common tern is replaced by a pale grayish area or one uniform in color with the upper parts. Another distinctive character is the color of the feet; whereas in young common and arctic terns these are in light shades of flesh color, reddish, or orange, in the young roseate they are much darker, “russet vinaceous” in the youngest, to “sorghum brown” or “Hay’s brown” in older birds, and finally darkening to dull black in large downies and juvenals.
The first plumage appears on the scapulars when the young bird is half grown. In the brown phase this is a rich “clay color”; in the gray phase it is pale buff. The wings are the next to become feathered. The juvenal, or first, plumage is unlike that of the common tern; it is more boldly and conspicuously marked with black and white; the feathers of the back, scapulars, and tertials are subterminally barred with brownish black or heavily marked with U-shaped or V-shaped spots of the same; the scapulars and tertials have several such markings or a variegated pattern of them. When the plumage is fresh these feathers are broadly margined or tipped with “pinkish buff,” but this color fades out to white. Often these huffy areas are finely sprinkled with dusky; the outer tail feather on each side is unmarked, but the others are more or less dusky near the tips. In the juvenal plumage young roseate terns have faintly rosy breasts and black or blackish feet, whereas in young common terns the breasts are white and the feet pale flesh color or dull reddish. The change into the first winter plumage, early in the fall, is accomplished by a partial molt of the body feathers. Early in the spring a complete prenuptial molt takes place, at which all of the mottled feathers disappear, the black cap is assumed, and most young birds become indistinguishable from adults. I have never seen a “portlandica” plumage in this species.
Adults have a complete postnuptial molt in August and September, or later, at which the adult winter plumage is acquired; the rosy breast is replaced by white and the white forehead is assumed. They also have a complete prenuptial molt in the early spring which produces the full nuptial plumage.
Food: In the swift tide rips about the sandy shoals, where the voracious bluefish drive the small fry to the surface in great schools, the terns find a fruitful feeding ground, for the little fish in their attempts to escape from their enemies below only betray themselves to the hungry birds above as they huddle together and skip along the surface in their fright. Here the terns gather in excited throngs and turn the tables by showing the fishermen where to troll for bluefish. In return the fishermen shoot the birds for their plumage or rob them of their eggs. So the struggle for existence goes on, and the weakest individual – in this case the tiny minnow – always gets the worst of it, for at best he can only “jump from the frying pan into the fire.” Mr. William Brewster (1879) has well described it as follows:
It is an interesting sight to watch the birds collect. A moment before perhaps only a few were to be seen, leisurely winnowing their way along the shore; but in an Incredibly short space of time the lucky discoverer of a school Is surrounded by hundreds of his fellows, and a perfect swarm of eager, hungry birds poises over the spot. Dozens dash down at once, cleaving the water like darts, and, rising again Into the air, shake the salt spray from their feathers by a single energetic movement, and make ready for a fresh plunge. Every bird among them Is screaming his shrillest, and the excitement waxes fast and furious. Beneath, the bluefish are making the water boll by their savage rushes, and there is fun and profit for all save the unfortunate prey.
The food of the roseate tern consists almost wholly of small fishes, but Audubon (1840) found them feeding also on “a kind of small molluscous animal which floats near the surface, and bears the name of ‘sailor’s button.'” Professor Jones (1903) identified the following species of fishes dropped on their breeding grounds:
Sand launce (Ammodvtes amerieanus), cunner (Tautogolabrus adsperua), mullet (Mugil curema), pollock (Pollachius virens), flounder (Pseudopleuronectes americanus), and young herring (species not determined). Of all the food the sand launce comprised not less than 80 per cent.
Behavior: The flight of the roseate tern is exceedingly light and graceful; it is the greyhound of its tribe, the longest, slenderest, and most highly specialized of the terns. As it floats along, with its long tail feathers streaming out behind, it seems to cleave the air with the greatest ease and swiftness, like a slender-pointed arrow. Its downward plunges into the water for its prey are swift and accurate; it often goes beneath the surface and generally emerges with a tiny minnow in its bill. Its shape and movements will generally serve to identify it, and if near enough, its black bill is a good field mark.
Its voice, however, is the surest means of identification, for it is entirely unlike that of the other terns with which it associates. Its alarm note seems entirely out of keeping with its grace and beauty of form and color, for it is harsh and grating, a prolonged rasping cry, like the syllables “kreck” or “crack” or “kraak,” louder and on a lower key than the cries of other terns. Mr. Brewster (1879) has likened this note of excitement or anger to the sound made “by forcibly tearing a strong piece of cotton cloth.” He also observes that its usual note is “a soft mellow hew-it, repeated at frequent intervals,” which I have recorded in my notes as “kulick,” a musical note heard on its breeding grounds when undisturbed. This is usually in soft conversational tones, mingled with a variety of cackling, chattering, and gurgling notes.
The roseate tern is intimately associated on its breeding grounds with the common tern, the laughing gull, the Cabot’s tern, and the sooty tern in different portions of its range, all of which species seem to live with it in reasonable peace and harmony. It is generally a peaceful and harmless neighbor, even friendly and sympathetic at times in helping to care for the young of others. At other times it seems to be very pugnacious, attacking and severely mauling a strange young one which wanders too near its own young, or quarreling with other adults of its own or other species. On Muskeget its chief enemy used to be the short-eared owl, a pair of which lived on the island and raised havoc among the terns; the owls were finally killed, however, in the cause of bird protection. Cats have been brought to the island, where they did so much damage that they, too, were removed. Marsh hawks and crows occasionally visit the islands and probably kill some young terns.
Fall: By the first or middle of August, when the young birds have been taught to fly and fish for themselves, both old and young birds begin to move away from their breeding grounds and wander about the coasts and islands in search of food, often straying far north of their breeding haunts at this season. They often congregate in large flocks, following the schools of small fish, resting and roosting on the sand beaches and sand bars. Their time for departure for the south depends on the food supply, but they usually begin to disappear in October and before the end of the month are all gone. They are said to follow the schools of bluefish, or, at least, to disappear with them. Their fall migration carries them beyond the limits of the United States to their winter quarters in the Bahamas, the West Indies, and the coasts of South America.
Breeding range: In North America, along the Atlantic coast from Nova Scotia (Sable and Noddy Islands) locally to New York (Long Island and vicinity); Florida (Tortugas); formerly in New Jersey and Virginia. Bermuda and Bahama Islands (Acklin, Eleuthera, etc.),the Lesser Antilles (Antigua, Guadeloupe, Dominica, Grenada, etc.), and westward to Venezuela (Aruba Island) and British Honduras. In the Eastern Hemisphere on the coasts of the North Sea and Atlantic Ocean from 570 north latitude to the Mediterranean, the Azores, Madeira, the coasts of Africa, Madagascar, Ceylon, and southern China. The Australian bird has been described as a distinct subspecies.
Breeding grounds protected in the following national reservation: In Florida, Tortugas Islands. Winter range: From the Bahama Islands, Cuba, and occasionally Louisiana, southward to Brazil; and from southern Mexico (Tehuantepec) to Chile.
Spring migration: Arrives in Bermuda from April 29 to May 1; Massachusetts, Muskeget, May 8 to 10; Connecticut, Faulkner’s Island, May 15.
Fall migration: Leaves Bermuda in September and Massachusetts about October 1. Other migration data seems to be lacking; probably the migration occurs well off the coast.
Casual records: Accidental inland as far north as New York (Youngstown, May 31, 1886) and as far west as Indiana (Millers, August 14, 1916).
Egg dates: Massachusetts: Thirty-one records, June 2 to August 15; sixteen records, June 15 to July 6. Bahamas and Florida Keys: Eight records, April 30 to June 12; four records, May 16 to 21.