Elegant Tern

Sterna elegans

A medium-sized tern with a shaggy crest and a long, slightly drooping orange bill, the Elegant Tern is seen along the Pacific Coast. After nesting in very southern California and Mexico, it wanders northward to northern California, or even to British Columbia

Interesting Information

  • Approximately 90-97% of all Elegant Terns nest in one colony on Isla Rasa in the Gulf of California, Mexico.

  • The Elegant Tern was first found nesting in the United States in 1959 in San Diego Bay, California. Since the 1980s, several more colonies have been established in California.


Adult Description

  • Size: 39-42 cm (15-17 in)

  • Wingspan: 107 cm (42 in)

  • Weight: 190-325 g (6.71-11.47 ounces)

Medium-sized tern. Long, slender yellow to reddish orange bill, appears to droop at tip. Short, forked tail. Complete black cap while breeding. Black in narrow, shaggy band around back of head; forehead white in winter. Mostly white all over, with some dark in wingtips. Underparts often with pink blush.

Sex Differences

Sexes Similar


Juvenile similar to nonbreeding adult, but bill smaller and pale yellow to orange-red, back with variable amounts of dark spotting, and wingtips darker.


Photo taken from: The Sibley Field Guide by David Allen Sibley

© 2003 Cornell Lab of Ornithology


Coastal waters, occasionally ocean far from land. Breeds on low, flat, sandy islands.


Flies over water with bill pointing down; plunges into water to catch fish.


Small fish. Some invertebrates.



Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
     Subphylum: Vertebrata
Class: Aves
Order: Charadriiformes
Family: Laridae
    Subfamily: Sterninae
Genus: Sterna
Species: Sterna elegans

Similar Species

  • Caspian Tern larger and more robust, with broader wings, thicker and more blunt bright red bill, short, square tail only shallowly notched, a black or streaked forehead at all times, and lacks a shaggy crest.

  • Royal Tern is larger, has a shorter crest, a more robust reddish bill, and keeps its dark breeding cap for only a short time.

  • Sandwich Tern similar in shape, but has black bill with yellow tip.

Bird Sound

A grating "kirr-ick."

Eggs look like this

Photo taken from: ARCTOS Collaborative Collection Management Solution