Royal Tern

Thalasseus maximus

  • Version: 2.0 — Published January 1, 2002
  • P. A. Buckley and Francine G. Buckley

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Figure 1. Distribution of the Royal Tern.

Distribution of the Royal Tern in North and Middle America and the western West Indies. After breeding, individuals regularly disperse along the Atlantic Coast north of the distribution shown. Breeding occurs very locally in the West Indies. Distinct populations currently treated as Royal Terns also breed in West Africa and southeastern South America. See text for details.

Adult Royal Tern, non-breeding plumage; Florida, October

Non-breeding (Definitive Basic) plumage; Ft. DeSoto Park, FL; October.  Adults carry fish back to mates and young. ; photographer Arthur Morris

Adult Royal Tern, breeding plumage;

; photographer William L. Newton

Editor's Note: Study of the mitochondrial DNA of terns, along with their plumage characteristics, have suggested that the heretofore broadly defined genus Sterna is paraphyletic. Reclassification of this genus now places Royal Tern in the genus Thalasseus. See the 47th Supplement to the AOU Check-list of North American Birds for details. Future revisions of this account will account for this change.

The loud, rolling “Keer-reet” call of foraging Royal Terns is among the most conspicuous and typical summer sounds of the Mid-Atlantic and Gulf coasts, as well as of Caribbean and southern California waters in fall and winter. A quintessentially saltwater species, this tern feeds inshore along barrier beach oceanfronts and back bays, occasionally ranging farther offshore when foraging, especially when feeding chicks.

For such a conspicuous bird, it is astonishing to discover that the normally discerning John J. Audubon himself confused it throughout his life with Caspian Tern (Hydroprogne​ caspia). In his monumental Birds of America, Audubon depicted neither Caspian nor Royal terns, but instead what he called a Cayenne Tern, Sterna cayana—mostly Royal Tern, but with some admixture of Caspian Tern features.

In the Western Hemisphere, Royal Tern is the flagship species among the crested terns, a cosmopolitan but essentially pantropical group characterized by conspicuous crests, extremely dense breeding colonies, continuously variable downy chicks and juveniles, the formation of crèches (common nurseries for prefledging chicks), extended parental care, and delayed first breeding. The crested terns formerly were classified in the genus Sterna, but currently are placed in their own genus, Thalasseus.

Royal Tern breeding populations occur in 4 or 5 separate geographic regions: Atlantic and Gulf coasts of North America and Caribbean, Yucatán Peninsula, Pacific coast of Mexico (north to southern California), southeastern South America, and central-west coast of Africa. These currently are divided into 2 subspecies, with all New World populations ascribed to nominate Thalasseus maximus maximus and Old World populations ascribed to T. m. albididorsalis . Breeding colonies favor traditional sites at isolated locations, free of terrestrial predators; in the United States, dredge-spoil islands have become key to the survival and expansion of the species.

In winter, Royal Terns retreat south from the extreme northern edges of their postbreeding range; increasingly common southward from the Outer Banks of North Carolina, they are among the most typical species in the West Indies. Individuals often move great distances in winter, routinely reaching Suriname and Peru. Typically noisy and highly social, they are conspicuous wherever they occur.

The most extensive studies of boreal populations of T. m. maximus have been those of the authors of this account (Buckley and Buckley 1969, Buckley and Buckley 1970a, Buckley and Buckley 1972a, Buckley and Buckley 1972b, Buckley and Buckley 1974, Buckley and Buckley 1976b, Buckley and Buckley 1977, Buckley and Hailman 1970, Buckley et al. 1985) and, currently, Steven Emslie and colleagues (Maness 2000, Mcginnis 2000, Wambach 2000, Maness and Emslie 2001, McGinnis and Emslie 2001). Austral T. m. maximus was first discussed by Rodolfo Escalante (Escalante 1968, Escalante 1985b), and aspects of its biology have recently been examined by Flavio Quintana and Pablo Yorio (Quintana and Yorio 1997, Quintana and Yorio 1998, Quintana and Yorio 1999, Yorio and Quintana 1997). In general, however, most populations of all the crested terns remain conspicuously unstudied, a pity considering their fascinating social systems.

Recommended Citation

Buckley, P. A. and F. G. Buckley (2002). Royal Tern (Thalasseus maximus), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.