Birds – Royal Tern

(Sterna maxima)


Length—18 to 20 inches.

Male and Female—Top and back of head glossy, greenish black, the feathers lengthened into a crest; mantle over back and wings light pearl color; back of neck, tail, and under parts white; inner part of long wing feathers (except at tip) white; outer part of primaries and tip, slate color. Feet black. Bill, which is long and pointed, is coral or orange red. Tail long and forked. After the nesting season and in winter, the top of head is simply streaked with black and white, and the bill grows paler.

Range—Warmer parts of North America on east and west coasts, rarely so far north as New England and the Great Lakes.

Season—Summer visitor. Resident in Virginia, and southward.

It is the larger Caspian tern, measuring from twenty to twenty-three inches, and not the royal tern, that deserves to be called maxima, however imposing the size of the latter bird may be, thanks to its elongated tail; but unless these two birds may be compared side by side in life—a dim possibility—it is quite hopeless for the novice to try to tell which tern is before him.

Off the Gulf shore, especially in Texas, Louisiana, and Florida, where great numbers live, this handsome bird exercises its royal prerogative by robbing the fish out of the pouch of the pelican, that is no match, in its slow flight, for this dashing monarch of the air. But if sometimes tyrannical, or perhaps only mischievous, it is also an industrious hunter; and with its sharp eyes fastened on the water, and its bill pointed downward, mosquito fashion, it skims along above the waves, making sudden evolutions upward, then even more sudden, reckless dashes directly downward, and under the water, to clutch its finny prey. With much flap-ping of its long, pointed wings as it reappears in an instant above the surface, it mounts with labored effort into the air again, and is off on its eager, buoyant flight. There is great joyousness about the terns a-wing; dashing, rollicking, aerial sprites they are, that the Florida tourists may sometimes see tossing a fish into the air just for the fun of catching it again, or dropping it for another member of the happy company to catch and toss again in genuine play. It would even seem that they must have a sense of humor, a very late appearing gift in the evolution of every race, scientists teach; and so this lower form of birds certainly cannot possess it, however much they may appear to.

While the terns take life easily at all times, nursery duties rest with special lightness. The royal species makes no attempt to form a nest, but drops from one to four rather small, grayish white eggs marked with chocolate, directly on the sand of the beach, or at the edge or a marshy lagoon. As the sun’s rays furnish most of the heat necessary for incubation, the mother bird confines her sitting chiefly to her natural bedtime.