Physical Description

  • A small bird with narrow, pointed wings and sharp, bracket-shaped tail.
  • Breeding adults: a black crown and white forehead. Thin yellow legs and a thin yellow bill. Yellow bill often has black tip. White feathers and gray wings, wings can have black edges, visible in flight..
  • Non-breeding adults: all adults keep breeding coloration.
  • Juveniles: Very small, with white belly and barred or scaly looking back and wings with light brown coloration. Crown is light brown or can be partially black. Darker bill than adults.


  • Breeding: the Caribbean, the United States (both coastal and major rivers), coastal Mexico, down to northern South America.
  • Migrating: migrate to central U.S. to breed in major rivers.


  • Found along seacoasts, bays, beaches, lagoons, estuaries, rivers, and lakes.
  • Breed on sandy and gravelly beaches or on lakeshores and riverbanks.


  • Aerial divers that plunge for prey.
  • Small fish, crustaceans, insects, small mollusks, worms.


  • Cats, dogs, coyotes, crows, skunks, foxes, and raccoons all prey on tern nests.
  • Burrowing owls, peregrine falcons, and American kestrels feed on adult terns.

Interesting Facts

  • They are the smallest tern in North America, hence the name Least Tern.
  • The oldest recorded least tern was 24 years old.
  • Least terns nest on the ground. Their population declined by 88% between 1966 and 2015, mainly due to humans encroaching on their nesting habitat. Never disturb a nest if you see one in the ground on the beach! 

Hear a Least Tern’s call at nest

Hear a Least Tern’s typical shrill call

Sources:; Audobon Field Guide; American Bird Conservancy; Los Padres ForestWatch

Photo: Thomas A. Blackman