Birds – Least Tern

(Sterna antillarum)


Length—9 inches.

Male and Female—In summer: Glossy greenish black cap on head, with narrow white crescent on forehead, and extending over the eyes. Cheeks black. Mantle over back, wings, and tail, pearl gray. A few outer wing feathers, black. Under parts satiny white. Bill, about as long as head, is yellow, tipped with black. Feet and legs, orange. Tail moderately forked. In winter: Top of head white, with black shaft lines on feathers. Mantle darker than in summer; a band of grayish black along upper wing, and most of the primaries black. Feet paler; bill black.

Range—Northern parts of South America, up the Pacific coast to California, and the Atlantic to Labrador; also on the larger bodies of water inland. Nests locally throughout its range. Winters south of United States.

Season—Irregular migrant and summer visitor.

Any of the thirteen species of terns that we may call ours is easily the superior of this little bird in size; but in grace and buoyancy of flight, in dash and impetuosity, it certainly owns no master among its own accomplished kin, and suggests the movements of the swallow alone among the land birds. Skimming just above the marshes near the sea or inland waters, as any swallow might, to feed upon the dragon-flies and other winged insects that dart in and out of the sedges, this little tern flashes its silvery breast in the sunlight, swallow fashion, and appears to have the ” sandals of lightning on its feet ” and ” soft wings swift as thought ” sung of by Shelley.

Off the shores of the low, sandy islands on the extreme southeastern coast of Massachusetts, where these terns nest regularly, though in sadly decreased numbers, they may be seen in company with the common tern, the roseate and the Arctic species, that also make their summer home there, as the joyous birds hunt in loose flocks together above the waves. There can be no difficulty in picking out the dainty, elegant little figure that floats and skims in mid-air, with bill pointing downward as if it were a lance to spear some tiny fish swimming in the ocean below.

Hovering for an instant on widely outstretched wings, like a miniature hawk, the next instant it has suddenly plunged after its prey, to reappear with it in its bill, since its feet are too webbed and weak to carry anything; and, if the season be mid-summer, it will doubtless head straight for its nest on the sand, to drop its spoils in the midst of a brood of three or four very tame young fledglings. In Minnesota, Dakota, and other inland states, both old and young birds feed almost entirely on insects.

All terns keep so closely within the lines of family traditions that a description of one member answers for each, with a few minor changes; and the reader is referred to the life history of the common tern for fuller particulars of the least species, to avoid constant repetition. Although this little bird nests directly on the sand, leaving the greater part of its incubating duties to the sun, as other terns do, its eggs may be easily distinguished, which is not true of the others, because of their smaller size and buffy white, brittle shells that are often wreathed with chocolate markings around the larger end, the rest of the egg being plain.

Some one has described the bird’s voice as “a sharp squeak, much like the cry of a very young pig.”