Arctic Tern

Among the most nomadic birds on the planet, these sun-loving tourists summer twice a year during their ambitious routes

Antarctic Peninsula

Name: Arctic tern (Sterna paradisaea)

Length: 25 - 40 cm (9.8 - 15.7 inches)

Weight: 85 - 125 grams (3 - 4.4 ounces)

Location: Arctic and Antarctica

Conservation status: Least concern

Diet: Fish, crustaceans

Appearance: Grey and white with a black “cap” on their heads and a red bill

How do Arctic terns feed?

Artic terns fish by dive-bombing the water.

Are Arctic terns social?

Arctic terns live in large colonies and have a number of social calls, including calls that identify them to other birds.

How fast do Arctic terns fly?

Arctic terns fly at about 35 to 40 kph (21.7 to 24.8 mph).

What are Arctic tern mating rituals like?

Arctic terns become sexually mature around three years old, nesting once every three years. They mate for life and return to the same colony every year.

The courtship ritual of Arctic terns begins with the female chasing a male up into the air (known as the “high flight”), after which the pair slowly descends back to the land. Next, the male Arctic tern brings gifts of fish, a ritual called the “fish flight.”

If this goes well, the Arctic tern courtship moves to the ground and involves strutting and posturing with their wings held open.

Paired up, the Arctic tern duo will build a nest together in a small depression in the ground. The male Arctic tern will then continue to fish for the female. The female, meanwhile, will lay one to three eggs (two on average). 

Artic terns are fiercely defensive of their nests, attacking invaders (including humans) by pecking at their heads. In fact, they’re so ferocious that other bird species will take advantage of their protective cover by building their own nests nearby. 

Both Arctic tern parents take turns incubating the eggs, which hatch after three or four weeks. The parents continue to bring fish, slowly increasing the volume of food so that the Arctic tern chick learns to feed itself on bigger prey. After about a month, the chicks (now known as “fledglings) begin to learn to dive for fish on their own.

How long do Arctic terns live?

Arctic terns live about 20 to 30 years.

How many Arctic terns are there today?

There are over 1,000,000 Arctic terns in the world today.

Do Arctic terns have any natural predators?

Eggs, chicks, and adult Arctic terns nesting on the ground are vulnerable to foxes, cats, and other seabirds, such as skuas.

Seven attractive Arctic tern facts

  • Because of their migratory pattern, Arctic terns see two summers every year and get more daylight than any other animal in the world.
  • Arctic terns have one of the longest-known migratory routes of all animals. Terns that nest in the Netherlands can travel over 90,000 km (55,900 miles) per year.
  • Arctic terns travel an estimated 2.4 million km (1.491 million miles) in their lifetimes. That’s three round-trip flights to the Moon.
  • Right before a colony of Arctic terns take flight, they grow silent. This moment is referred to as the “dread.”
  • Arctic terns do not spend the whole route of their migrations flapping their wings, but rather glide a great amount of the distances. Actually, they’re such good gliders they can even sleep while gliding.
  • Artic terns are one of the only birds aside from the hummingbird that can hover.
  • Rather than take direct routes between the North and South Pole, Arctic terns detour long distances to find better feeding grounds or avoid inclement weather.  

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