Birds – Roseate Tern

(Sterna dougalli)

Called also: PARADISE TERN

Length—14.50 to 15.50 inches.

Male and Female—In summer: Mantle over back and wings delicate pearl color, lighter and fading to white on the tail, which is exceedingly long and deeply forked. Feathers on crown, which reaches to the eyes and the back of neck, are black and long. Under parts white, tinted with rose color. Long, slender black bill, reddish at the base and yellow at the tip. Feet and legs yellowish red. In winter: Under parts pure white, having lost the rose tint; forehead and cheeks white. Crown becomes brownish black, mixed with white; some brownish feathers on wings; pearl gray tail, without extreme elongation or forking.

Range—Temperate and warm parts of Atlantic coast, nesting as far north as New England; most abundant, however, south of New Jersey. Winters south of United States.

Season—Comparatively rare summer resident at the north, but regular.

Closely associated with the common tern in their nesting colonies on Gull and Muskegat Islands, described in the preceding biography, this most exquisite member of all the family may be distinguished from its companions by the very long and sharply pointed tail feathers, and the lovely rose-colored flush it wears on its breast as a sort of wedding garment. This tint is all too transitory, however; family cares fade it to white; death utterly destroys it, though it sometimes changes to a salmon shade as the lifeless body cools, before disappearing forever. Comparatively short of wing, the roseate tern cannot be said to lose any of the buoyancy and grace of flight, the dash and ecstasy that give to the movements of all the tribe their peculiar fascination.

It has been said that these birds’ eggs are paler than those of the common terns, which are very variable, ranging from olive gray or olive brownish gray to (more rarely) whitish or buff, heavily marked with chocolate; but though they may aver-age paler, many are identical with those just described ; and as the birds nest in precisely the same manner, on the same beach, not even an expert could correctly name the egg every time with-out seeing the adult bird that laid it identify its own.

A single harsh note, each, rises above the din made by the common terns, and at once identifies the voice of the roseate species. It would be unfair to attribute the melancholy, unpleasing quality of the terns’ voices to their dispositions, which we have every reason to suppose are particularly joyous and amiable. This bird also appears less excitable; but in all other particulars than those already noted the common and the roseate terns share the characteristics described in the preceding account, to which the reader is referred. It is a gratification to know that at the close of the first season, when the tern colony had been protected at Gull Island, Mr. Dutcher could report an increase of from one thousand to fifteen hundred birds, virtually an increase of one half the total number in one year.

With the four species of tern that nest in the neighborhood of New York and New England, the Arctic Tern (Sterna paradiscea) has nearly all characteristics in common, and the few peculiarities that differentiate it from the common tern are quickly learned. While these birds are similar in color, the Arctic tern “differs in having less gray on the shaft part of the inner web of the outer primaries, in having the tail somewhat longer, the tarsi and bill shorter; while the latter, in the adult, is generally without a black tip.” (Chapman.) Its voice is shriller, with a rising inflection at the end, and resembling the squeal of a pig; but it also has a short, harsh note that can scarcely be distinguished from the roseate tern’s cry.

In habits the Arctic tern is said to have the doubtful peculiarity of being more bold in defense of its young than any of its kin; first in war, most fierce in attack, and the last to leave an intruder. At Muskegat Island, where great colonies of terns regularly nest and are protected under the wing of the law (see page 5o) it is usually the Arctic tern that dashes frantically downward into the very face of the visitor who dares to inspect its eggs. These are of a darker ground and more heavily marked than those of the common tern. Mr. Chamberlain says these terns ” may be seen sitting on a rock or stump, watching for their prey in kingfisher fashion. They float buoyantly on the surface, but rarely dive beneath the water.” Their nesting range is from Massachusetts to the Arctic regions; and they winter southward only to Virginia and California.