Family Gulls, Terns, Skimmers (Laridae)

Least Concern

Sooty Tern (Onychoprion fuscatus)


French: Sterne fuligineuse German: Rußseeschwalbe Spanish: Charrán sombrío

Sterna fuscata


, 1766,

Santo Domingo


Formerly united with O. anaethetus and O. lunatus in separate genus Haliplana. Geographical variation subtle: kermadeci may be better regarded as a synonym of serratus#R, and recognition of serratus and crissalis as races possibly not warranted. Proposed form somalensis (possibly endemic on Mait I, in Gulf of Aden) synonymized with nubilosus, but perhaps worthy of recognition; study required. Proposed form infuscatus (Indonesia) also subsumed within nubilosus. Seven subspecies currently recognized.

Subspecies and Distribution
  • O. f. fuscatus (Linnaeus, 1766) – Gulf of Mexico, including West Indies and E Mexico, with sporadic isolated nesting attempts in E & S USA (Carolinas and Florida, more regularly in Louisiana and Texas); also islands in Gulf of Guinea and in S Atlantic. There is a tiny outpost population, one or two pairs, in the Azores#R.
  • O. f. nubilosus (Sparrman, 1788) – S Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean E to W Pacific Ocean (Ryukyu Is and Philippines).
  • O. f. serratus (Wagler, 1830) – New Guinea and Australia, New Caledonia and S Pacific E to Easter I.
  • O. f. kermadeci Mathews, 1916 – Kermadec Is, Norfolk I and Lord Howe I.
  • O. f. oahuensis (Bloxam, 1827) – Bonin Is (S of Japan) E to Hawaii and S through tropical N Pacific to Line Is.
  • O. f. crissalis (Lawrence, 1872) – islands off W Mexico and Central America S to Galapagos.
  • O. f. luctuosus (R. A. Philippi [Krumwiede] & Landbeck, 1866) – Sala y Gómez and Desventuradas Is, off N Chile#R.
  • Descriptive notes

    36–45 cm; 147–240 g, mean 173 g in Australia and on Kiritimati I (Christmas I, in Pacific), 175 g on Ascension I, 189 g in Dry Tortugas; wingspan 82–94 cm.... read more


    A nasal barking or laughing “ker-wack-wack” is heard constantly at colonies. Juveniles give high-... read more


    Pantropical, in tropical and subtropical waters; largely absent from cold-current areas; mainly... read more

    Food and feeding

    Mainly fish and squid, also crustaceans; occasionally insects and offal. At Kiritimati, squid comprise more than half diet by volume, and... read more


    Breeds year-round in some places, but nesting seasonal in others. Nesting cycle on Ascension I is sub-annual and takes 9·6... read more


    Pelagic when not nesting. Adults are unable to settle on water and are believed to sleep on the... read more

    Status and conservation

    Not globally threatened (Least Concern). One of most abundant seabirds, with several colonies of 1,000,000+ pairs. Global population probably exceeds 20 million pairs. Race... read more

    Recommended citation

    Gochfeld, M., Burger, J., Kirwan, G.M., Christie, D.A., de Juana, E. & Garcia, E.F.J. (2019). Sooty Tern (Onychoprion fuscatus). 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 25 May 2019).