Family Gulls, Terns, Skimmers (Laridae)

Least Concern

Royal Tern (Thalasseus maximus)


French: Sterne royale German: Königsseeschwalbe Spanish: Charrán real

Sterna maxima


, 1783,



Genetic data suggest that this species may be sister to T. bengalensis#R. Has been thought to be closely related to T. bergii. Validity of race albididorsalis sometimes questioned, but appears to be worthy of recognition#R. Further genetic data emphasizes that race albididorsalis is indeed distinct from race maximus and that it is the former that forms part of a genetic cluster with Thalasseus bengalensis (of all subspecies) and T. bergii#R. Populations in SE South America may be separate race#R. Two subspecies normally recognized.

Subspecies and Distribution
  • T. m. albididorsalis (E. J. O. Hartert, 1921) – Breeds Mauritania S along coast to Guinea, occasionally farther S. Some range N to Morocco after breeding. Winters S to Namibia.
  • T. m. maximus (Boddaert, 1783) – coastal SW USA (S California) to NW Mexico (Sinaloa), and E USA (Maryland, rarely New Jersey, to Texas) through West Indies to the Guianas and possibly Brazil, with disjunct breeding populations in Yucatán Peninsula, and in S Brazil, Uruguay and N Patagonia; winters S to Peru and to Uruguay and Argentina.
  • Descriptive notes

    45–51 cm; 320–500 g (maximus 380–500 g; albididorsalis 320–440 g, mean 367 g); wingspan 100–135 cm. Crown and elongated nape... read more


    Highly vocal, especially at nesting colonies. Contact or advertising call characteristic: a loud,... read more


    Subtropical and tropical coasts. Breeds on barren sandy barrier beaches, salt-marsh islands, shell... read more

    Food and feeding

    Mainly small fish (3–18 cm, average 6·7 cm), also squid, shrimps and crabs. In Africa, mainly Clupeidae, Mugilidae,... read more


    Lays Apr–Jul in W Africa, Apr in Texas, May from Florida to Maryland, Jun in French Guiana, Nov in Patagonia. Breeds in dense, often... read more


    Both races are migratory and both show a degree of northbound post-breeding dispersal, followed by... read more

    Status and conservation

    Not globally threatened (Least Concern). In the Americas, race maxima is estimated at 139,000 birds on Atlantic/Gulf coasts and > 26,000 birds on the Pacific coast.... read more

    Recommended citation

    Gochfeld, M., Burger, J. & Garcia, E.F.J. (2019). Royal Tern (Thalasseus maximus). 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).