At AllThingsNature, we're committed to delivering accurate, trustworthy information. Our expert-authored content is rigorously fact-checked and sourced from credible authorities. Discover how we uphold the highest standards in providing you with reliable knowledge.

Learn more...

What is an Arctic Tern?

S. Ashraf
S. Ashraf

The arctic tern, or Sterna paradisaea, is a medium-size seabird with a length of about 13-15 inches (33-39 cm), a wingspan of 26-30 inches (76-85 cm), and a weight of approximately 3.0-4.5 ounces (86-127 g). In appearance, the arctic tern has plumage that is mainly gray and white, along with a bright orange beak, a black head and a whitish tail. Distinctively, it has webbed feet and short, orange legs. Males and females resemble each other in appearance.

As might be expected, the habitat of the arctic tern is primarily in the northern latitudes where its breeding grounds are located. These arctic birds nest on the ground in close proximity to shorelines, marshes and tundra lakes. They can be found throughout the Scandinavian and Baltic coasts, in Siberia and along the shores of Greenland and Iceland. In addition, they nest in Britain, Ireland and Canada, as well as in the United States, where they can be found on the East Coast as far south as Massachusetts.

The Arctic tern can be found in Siberia.
The Arctic tern can be found in Siberia.

The breeding cycle of the arctic tern has caused it to become famous in the scientific community for its migration. During the northern summer, it can be found dispersed throughout its breeding grounds. After the breeding season is over, it begins the longest regular migration of any known animal as it flies to Antarctica for the southern summer. This is a round-trip journey of some 24,000 miles (38,000 km) when measured point-to-point from the Arctic to the Antarctic. These arctic birds are exposed to more daylight than any other creature on the planet since they are in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres during the periods when the days are the longest.

An arctic tern living 30 years, which many do, will have traveled the equivalent of three round-trip journeys to the moon during the course of its life. Perhaps as a consequence of the time spent migrating, the arctic tern has learned to perform most all of its life tasks in the air. Depending on their mating cycles, the birds land only once every one to three years.

Arctic terns mate for life and have elaborate courtship rituals. The mates must both agree on the site for their nest. As one of the more aggressive terns, both sexes defend the nest and their young. Both adults and the young are carnivorous, with their diets consisting mostly of small fish, crustaceans, krill and insects.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is an Arctic Tern?

An Arctic Tern is a small, migratory seabird known for its remarkable long-distance flights. It breeds in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions and winters in the Antarctic, covering a distance of about 25,000 miles annually. This bird is recognized by its slender body, light grey plumage, a black cap, and a deeply forked tail.

How far do Arctic Terns migrate?

Arctic Terns undertake the longest migration of any bird species, with a round trip of about 50,000 miles each year. According to researchers, over its lifetime, an Arctic Tern can travel the equivalent of going to the moon and back three times, which is a testament to its extraordinary endurance and navigational abilities.

What do Arctic Terns eat?

Arctic Terns primarily feed on fish and small marine invertebrates. They are skilled hunters, often seen plunging into the water from heights to catch their prey. Their diet varies depending on the availability of food sources along their migratory routes and in their breeding and wintering grounds.

How do Arctic Terns reproduce?

Arctic Terns breed once they reach the Arctic during the summer months. They form monogamous pairs and lay one to three eggs in a ground nest. Both parents share incubation duties for about three to four weeks. After hatching, the chicks are cared for by both parents until they fledge and are ready to migrate.

What threats do Arctic Terns face?

Arctic Terns face several threats, including habitat loss due to climate change, which affects their breeding and feeding grounds. Human disturbances, predation by invasive species, and overfishing that reduces their food supply are also significant challenges. Conservation efforts are crucial to ensure the survival of this long-distance traveler.

How can we help protect Arctic Terns?

To protect Arctic Terns, supporting conservation initiatives that preserve critical breeding and wintering habitats is essential. Reducing human disturbances in these areas, combating climate change, and ensuring sustainable fishing practices can help maintain the food sources and ecosystems that Arctic Terns rely on for their epic migrations.

Discuss this Article

Post your comments
Forgot password?
    • The Arctic tern can be found in Siberia.
      By: simanovskiy
      The Arctic tern can be found in Siberia.