Family Gulls, Terns, Skimmers (Laridae)

Least Concern

Common Tern (Sterna hirundo)


French: Sterne pierregarin German: Flussseeschwalbe Spanish: Charrán común

Sterna Hirundo


, 1758,



Genetic data#R indicate that present species, S. dougallii, S. hirundinacea, S. paradisaea and S. vittata may form a monophyletic group that also includes Old World S. striata and S. sumatrana, with S. forsteri and S. trudeaui possibly also part of this group. In North America, genetic studies of populations in N USA (Minnesota and Wisconsin) and ringing studies in NE USA reveal high degree of gene flow, despite colony site-tenacity. Can hybridize with S. dougallii. C Asian minussensis often considered to be no more than a hybrid form between nominate hirundo and longipennis. Four subspecies normally recognized.

Subspecies and Distribution
  • S. h. hirundo Linnaeus, 1758 – North America (C & E Canada, N & E USA) to N South America, Atlantic islands, Europe, N Africa (Tunisia) and W Africa (Mauritania, Senegal, erratically Nigeria), through Middle East and Black and Caspian Seas to Yenisey Valley; winters S of Tropic of Cancer.
  • S. h. minussensis Sushkin, 1925 – C Asia from upper Yenisey Valley E to Baikal and N Mongolia; winters mainly N Indian Ocean.
  • S. h. tibetana H. Saunders, 1876 – W Mongolia S to Kashmir and SW & SC China (Tibet, Sichuan), at high altitudes; winters mostly E Indian Ocean.
  • S. h. longipennis Nordmann, 1835 – NE Siberia S to NE China (C Heilongjiang to Inner Mongolia and Shanxi); winters E Indian Ocean and SE Asia to Australia and (rarely) New Zealand.
  • Descriptive notes

    32–39 cm; 97–146 g (average 120–135 g in breeding season, 102 g in winter); wingspan 72–83 cm. Typical tern; forehead and crown black; back and... read more


    Very noisy at colonies where calls include the typical “kierri-kierri-kierri” and short, sharp “kit... read more


    Breeds in both coastal and inland areas, from sea-level to 4000+ m. Wide variety of habitats... read more

    Food and feeding

    Mainly small fish, particularly Ammodytes, Menidia, Fundulus, Tautogolabrus, Clupea, ... read more


    Laying mainly April–June. Mainly colonial, often in thousands, but sometimes solitary. Inland colonies smaller than coastal ones; at... read more


    Strongly migratory, chiefly wintering on and off coasts in the tropics and temperate regions of S... read more

    Status and conservation

    Not globally threatened (Least Concern). Global population is estimated at 1,600,000–3,600,000 individuals, the great majority being of the nominate race; the... read more

    Recommended citation

    Gochfeld, M., Burger, J., Christie, D.A. & Garcia, E.F.J. (2019). Common Tern (Sterna hirundo). 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 9 December 2019).