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What is a Royal Tern?

Rhonda Rivera
Rhonda Rivera

Royal tern is the common name given to a seabird scientifically known as Thalasseus maximus or Sterna maxima. These birds are primarily white and gray with yellow-orange beaks and black accents. They can be found in North America, Africa, and some of Europe. Like some other seabirds, a royal tern dives into water to capture fish in its beak. During mating season, this catch might be offered to a female in a display of courtship.

These birds have a white body and underbelly with grey wings, black feet, and black tufts on their foreheads. They are often described as gull-like, though gulls in general do not get along with royal terns. Sometimes royal terns are confused with elegant, lesser, and great terns because of their similar appearances. There are subtle differences, however; for example, a royal tern has a shorter and straighter bill than an elegant tern.

Veterinarian with a puppy
Veterinarian with a puppy

A royal tern can be found on the coasts and islands of North America, Africa, and occasionally Europe. In Europe, this kind of tern is rare and likely migrated from North America. Royal terns migrate either south or north during the winter, depending on the region they are in.

When a royal tern finds a mate, it creates a nest on the shore by digging in the sand and regularly defecating in it. The feces builds up and reinforces the nest against the tides. A royal tern will fiercely defend its nest of one to two eggs against predators. These eggs hatch roughly one month after laying.

The young of royal terns are born with their eyes open and covered in a soft down. They leave the nest shortly after hatching, but their parents can find and feed them even among hundreds or thousands of other terns. Sometimes young royal terns form a crèche, which is a group of young birds guarded by one or more adult birds. These groups can contain hundreds of newly hatched chicks, depending on the size of the colony.

A royal tern does not wander far from the coast in search of food, but it might fly relatively far away from the colony. These birds are known to hunt both alone and in groups, though stealing fish from one another is not unheard of. When it dives, it captures fish close to the surface rather than submerging itself in water to get fish further down.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a Royal Tern?

A Royal Tern is a seabird known scientifically as Thalasseus maximus, which belongs to the tern family. It is characterized by its large size, with a body length of about 45-50 cm, a distinctive black cap on its head during the breeding season, and a long, orange bill. These birds are commonly found along coastlines in the Americas and West Africa, where they feed on fish and invertebrates.

Where can you find Royal Terns?

Royal Terns are coastal birds that inhabit areas in the Americas and the western coast of Africa. In North America, they are typically found along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, from the Mid-Atlantic States in the United States to Mexico and the Caribbean. They migrate to South America during the non-breeding season. Their African range includes the Atlantic coast from Mauritania to Gabon.

What do Royal Terns eat?

Royal Terns primarily feed on small fish and invertebrates, which they catch by diving into the water. They have excellent eyesight, which allows them to spot prey from high above the water. They may also pick food off the surface or engage in opportunistic feeding, sometimes following fishing boats for scraps or preying on the eggs and young of other seabirds.

How do Royal Terns reproduce?

Royal Terns are colonial nesters, often forming large breeding colonies on sandy or shelly beaches, islands, or salt marshes. They lay one to two eggs, and both parents share incubation duties for about 30 days. After hatching, chicks form crèches, which are large groups that provide safety in numbers. Parents can recognize their offspring in these groups and continue to provide food until fledging.

Are Royal Terns endangered?

As of my knowledge cutoff in 2023, Royal Terns are not considered endangered. They are listed as "Least Concern" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). However, they face threats from habitat loss, human disturbance, pollution, and climate change, which could impact their populations in the future. Conservation efforts are important to ensure their continued survival.

How do Royal Terns differ from other tern species?

Royal Terns are one of the larger tern species, with a distinctive orange bill and a black cap during the breeding season. Unlike some terns, they do not have a deeply forked tail. Their call is a loud, distinctive 'kee-r-rick' sound. Behaviorally, they are more likely to form larger breeding colonies and are more specialized in their diet compared to some other tern species.

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      Veterinarian with a puppy