Family Gulls, Terns, Skimmers (Laridae)

Least Concern

Common Gull-billed Tern (Gelochelidon nilotica)


French: Sterne hansel German: Lachseeschwalbe Spanish: Pagaza piconegra
Other common names: Gull-billed Tern (when lumped with G. macrotarsa)

Sterna nilotica

J. F. Gmelin

, 1789,



Listed as G. anglica in many older works. Hitherto treated as conspecific with G. macrotarsa. Birds of E Asia and SE China sometimes referred to as race addenda, but name affinis has priority. Five subspecies recognized.

Subspecies and Distribution
  • G. n. nilotica (J. F. Gmelin, 1789) – S Europe and W & N Africa (S to Mauritania, E to Tunisia) E through Middle East, Kazakhstan and N Indian Subcontinent to Transbaikalia and NE China (NE Inner Mongolia)#R; winters from tropical Africa through Persian Gulf to India.
  • G. n. affinis (Horsfield, 1821) – E & SE China (shores of Bohai Gulf; Fuzhou, in NE Fujian, to Guangdong); winters mainly SE Asia, some extending W to W & S Indian Subcontinent, and SE probably to Australia.
  • G. n. aranea (A. Wilson, 1814) – coast of E USA from New Jersey (rarely New York) S to Texas, also Cuba, Bahamas and Puerto Rico, and sparsely along Mexican coast to Yucatán; winters along Central American coasts and S to Brazil and Peru.
  • G. n. vanrossemi Bancroft, 1929 – W USA in California (coastal plain and Salton Sea), S to W Mexico (N Baja California and Sinaloa, and probably S to Gulf of Tehuantepec), with isolated breeding recorded in Alaska (delta of Copper R); winters S to Ecuador.
  • G. n. gronvoldi Mathews, 1912 – coast and river valleys from French Guiana (Cayenne) S to NE Argentina (Buenos Aires).
  • Breeds also in Colombia#R and Ecuador#R#R, possibly gronvoldi or aranea, or an undescribed race.

    Descriptive notes

    33–43 cm; 130–320 g (nilotica 189–292 g, affinis 178–320 g, aranea 160–205 g, vanrossemi 163... read more


    Most common call given by adults a two-noted, slightly upslurred “kay-wek” (or similar), given... read more


    Breeds on barrier beaches and dunes, salt-marshes, salt-works, man-made islands, and rivers and... read more

    Food and feeding

    Opportunistic: more insectivorous than most other terns, prey including mainly grasshoppers, dragonflies, moths and grubs; also takes... read more


    Lays May–Jun in North America, Europe and N Africa, Apr–May in India (where most breeding sites coastal), May in China, as well... read more


    European birds disperse in all directions after breeding, then migrate across Spain, Italy and N... read more

    Status and conservation

    Not globally threatened (Least Concern). Global population estimated at 150,000–320,000 individuals. It is nowhere abundant but regional trends vary and it may be... read more

    Recommended citation

    Gochfeld, M., Burger, J., Kirwan, G.M. & Garcia, E.F.J. (2020). Common Gull-billed Tern (Gelochelidon nilotica). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. (retrieved from on 23 February 2020).