Elegant Tern (Thalasseus elegans)

Elegant Tern

[order] CHARADRIIFORMES | [family] Laridae | [latin] Thalasseus elegans | [UK] Elegant Tern | [FR] Sterne elegante | [DE] Schmuck-Seeschwalbe | [ES] | [NL] Californische Kuifstern


Monotypic species

Physical charateristics

Sterna elegans, the Elegant Tern, is a medium-size, orange-billed, shaggy-crested member of the tern subfamily. It is very similar in appearance to the Royal Tern, but is smaller and more slender, with a much thinner, proportionately longer, slightly decurved orange or orange-yellow bill. Its tail is moderately forked.

In summer, the Elegant Tern has a black cap with a long crest that extends from the top of the bill to the back of the head. In winter, the plumage on the head changes. The forehead is white, the crown gray, and the black nape extends forward to the eyes.

Listen to the sound of Elegant Tern

[audio:http://www.aviflevoland.nl/sounddb/E/Elegant Tern.mp3]

Copyright remark: Most sounds derived from xeno-canto

wingspan min.: cm wingspan max.: cm
size min.: 39 cm size max.: 43 cm
incubation min.: 20 days incubation max.: 21 days
fledging min.: 0 days fledging max.: 21 days
broods: 1   eggs min.: 1  
      eggs max.: 2  


North America, Latin America : West coasts


This species breeds on flat rocky areas and is strongly tied to the coast. It forages in inshore waters, estuarine habitats, salt ponds and lagoons, with some individuals venturing further offshore in the non-breeding season.


They breed on the coasts and islands of Mexico and Central America, placing their eggs on the sand. They are believed to lay but a single egg, like that of the Royal Tern, but smaller. Size 2.40 x 1.40. Terns are gregarious birds and breed colonially. The Elegant Tern nests only in a scrape in the sand; other species, like the Forster’s and Black Terns, build a substantial nest of vegetation. One to two pinkish eggs are laid, and incubation lasts about 20 days.

Feeding habits

They eat primarily small fish, which they catch by diving from the the air.
The Elegant Tern feeds by plunge-diving for fish, almost invariably from the sea, like most Thalasseus terns. It usually dives directly, and not from the “stepped-hover” favoured by the Arctic Tern. The offering of fish by the male to the female is part of the courtship display.


This species is considered Near Threatened as it has a restricted breeding range, with more than 90% of the breeding population being restricted to a single island. It is also subject to large population fluctuations in response to climatic effects, and could be negatively affected by climate change, human intrusions and overfishing.
Elegant Tern status Near Threatened


Post-breeding dispersal northward to N California and rarely to British Columbia. Uncommon migrant off Pacific coast of Costa Rica. Winters on Pacific coast from Guatemala to C Chile, mostly in Peru and N Chile. Accidental in Texas. Odd records from Netherlands, Ireland, Spain and France (including hybridization with T. sandvicensis), but provenance of such birds in question, as species virtually unrecorded anywhere in North America away from Pacific coast; probably attributable to escapes from shipments of exotic seabirds from wintering grounds in W South America.

Distribution map

Elegant Tern distribution range map

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