The Nature Devotional

At Least We Still Get A Tern

This week’s Get to Know Your Neighbor goes to the Least Tern!

The Interior Least Tern, to be specific. The ‘that’s a mouthful!’ version of his name you ask? Sternula antillarum athalassos.

Like many shore birds, the Least Tern has shown heavy population decline in recent years. Their population falling a staggering 88% between 1966 and 2015. With the destruction of habitat via construction of dams, roads, and reservoirs and the use of water diversion and poor water supply and resource management, the habitats the Terns rely on for nesting, breeding and feeding are encroached upon and often destroyed. When able to nest, human recreation becomes an issue. Inconsideration of the feathery little shore birds creates big risks from destruction to nests and eggs to the deaths of chicks. With climate change ever present and ever altering weather patterns et cetera, the habitats and habits of the birds are greatly affected.
Photo: Ursula Dubrick/Audubon Photography Awards

I have been drawn to the Interior Least Tern and many of its relatives and shore-mates for quite some time. Something about a shorebird and its playful, persistent and adorably obnoxious and dorky personality always draws me in. The interesting thing about this particular shore bird is how far inland they happen to go. They travel deep into the mid-west– the interior U.S., hence their special name.

If you ever want get a chance to see one, you might look down as well as up! These little birds are ground nesters and like to scoop out little ‘scrapes’ of sand, soil or pebbles to make room for their clutches of eggs. They usually produce 1-3 eggs which are spotted and mottled alluding to the pattern of the little chicks who come out. What a wonder nature is!

After about a 19-25 day incubation period, really watch where you step, lay, or bike, etc because you may land on a fuzzy little Tern chick covered in her fluffy, spotted down.

Though newly hatched chicks can walk, talk and see everything there is to see right out of the egg, they stay grounded to the nest for about 2 days.

You may find these funny birds at beaches, lagoons, river banks and lakes, estuaries, coasts, bays etc. They like sandy beaches and I think we can all understand why!

For breakfast, lunch and dinner, they enjoy small fish and invertebrates they catch themselves. They have a specific hover and dive pattern that sets an easy visual for birders with their sharply angled wing shape and silhouette.

These little guys, as I so often refer to them, are the smallest Tern in North America. And have the sweet cuteness to go along with it!

Though they prefer their sandy beaches etc, some Terns have been pushed to using flat, gravelly roofs which, if too hot and sunny can become dangerous for the chicks. The hot and melting tar can burn the feet of baby Terns and stick to their fluffy down, pulling and gluing at them.

I have never to my knowledge seen a Least Tern in my life time. Certainly not in person. While the bird has very recently been graduated from the Endangered Species list to the Watch List, others are not so lucky.

My goal in the next five years is to travel to these locations where birds and other creatures like the Least Terns and others may live and see them before it may be too late. I cannot imagine a world without birds. Their song is my alarm clock every morning and soothes my breath when I need to slow down. I love watching their quirky little dances, fights and feasts. Each one has such a vibrant and apparent personality you cannot help but fall in love with them the second you connect with one…and that’s all we have to do. Connect.

If you would like to help support these birds and others like them, visit and click the “Take Action” tab to send pre-written, editable letters to your local congressman or explore the website to learn more about birds and what we can do for them. You can donate monetary gifts or support the birds by purchasing Audubon gift/shop items. Other bird or beast friendly websites offer similar options to send pre-written letters to government officials, sign petitions or donate to help save our neighbors and our home(s), so if you have one specific cause in mind, don’t hesitate to google! There are also often local organizations that help you figure out how to donate your time and energy if you’re more of a hands-on person like me.

I will also list a variety of other bird-centered resources below.

Here’s to hoping singing in a bird song all the other humans can understand will preserve the space and life the birds need to continue to sing theirs.

Other Fun Facts:

  • The oldest recorded Least Tern was 24 years and 1 month old. He was found in New Jersey in 1981 with a band from 1957!
  • You can often tell the age of a Least Tern by its beak color! Dark bills often tell that it is that bird’s first summer, yellow billed Least Terns are old enough to mate.
  • They dive to the water to catch their prey, hovering first to scope out the area. They catch the small fish without submerging! They hunt in shallower waters.
  • Nests are referred to as shallow nest ‘scrapes’
  • First flight for young Least Terns comes at about 20 days of age

What Else Can You Do?

  • Reduce use of chemicals used on lawns and plants to preserve and protect the quality of the water supply we share with the birds and everything else
  • Write to your local and federal government in support of birds and their habitat and be sure to be mindful of voting for candidates who support the values that support the birds and our environment
  • Continue to love and support birds by watching, documenting, sharing and enjoying them. Make art inspired by birds and their environment, share information about the birds and their needs to others or just positive facts, pictures, art and articles. Spread awareness and give the birds a voice! Help spread connection!

Sources and Resources:

  • Check out American Bird Conservancy for all sorts of great info, resources and direction on how you can help support the birds one an advocacy and outreach level as well as in your simple, day to day life.
  • One of my favorite resources on birds and birding. From calls to action to quirky stories and fun gifts, this holistic website is a heavy hitter!
  • Cornell has innumerable resources for all walks of topics. Their Ornithology department is fantastic! This website is very accessible and has a lot of up to date info and is open to public input on how to improve accessibility and transportation of information. Simple and easy to use.
  • Fish and Wildlife always has great resources to get the straight facts and accurate statistics and government/federal plans to list, rehabilitate and nurture growth of bird populations and their natural habitats/migratory habitats. They also give clear examples of what hurts the birds and what we can do to help.
  • An absolutely wonderful resource to get clips of information on birds to help you build a relationship with them and get to know all your bird neighbors. Great for birders or just those who wish/like to notice.

Other Endangered or Watch Listed Species Featured on This Blog: