Royal Tern

Sterna maxima

A large, orange-billed tern, the Royal Tern is found only along ocean beaches.

Interesting Information

  • The Royal Tern makes its nest scrape on the ground on low-lying islands. The pair defecates directly on the nest rim, perhaps to reinforce the nest against flooding. After a few weeks, the nest rim hardens.

  • Young Royal Terns leave the nest scrape within one day after hatching and congregate together in a group known as a crèche. Eventually all of the chicks in a colony come to the crèche, which can have thousands of chicks ranging in age from two to 35 days old. A pair of Royal Terns will feed only their own chick, and manage to find it in the crowd, probably by recognizing its call.


Adult Description

  • Length Range: 46-53 cm (18-21 in)

  • Weight: 453 g (16 oz)

  • Size: Large (16 - 32 in)

  • Large tern.

  • Slender orange bill (from yellow to reddish).

  • Short, forked tail.

  • Black in a narrow, shaggy band around back of head; forehead white. (Complete black cap held only briefly during breeding.)

  • Mostly white all over, with some dark in wingtips.

Sex Differences

Sexes Similar


Juvenile similar to nonbreeding adult, but bill smaller and pale yellow, 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


  • Breeds in wide variety of habitats along water, such as salt marshes, barrier islands, dredge spoil islands, freshwater lake islands, and river islands.

  • During migration and winter found along coastlines, large rivers and lakes. Roosts on islands and isolated spits.


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


Fish and shrimp.



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

Similar Species

  • Larger and more robust than most other terns.

  • Pointed orange bill and black cap distinguishes it from gulls.

  • 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.

  • Elegant Tern is smaller, has a shaggier crest, and a more yellowish bill, or reddish with yellow tip.

Bird Sound

Call a loud, rolling "keer-reet."

Eggs look like this

Photo taken from: ARCTOS Collaborative Collection Management Solution