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New Jersey Endangered and Threatened Species Field Guide

Image of Roseate tern.Zoom+ Roseate tern. © Kirk Rogers/USFWS

Roseate tern

Sterna dougallii

Species Group: Bird

Conservation Status

State: Endangered

Federal: Endangered



The roseate tern is a medium-sized, light colored tern with a dark cap and long tail. In breeding plumage, the adult has a black cap and nape. They have a pale gray back and underwing feathers. Its belly and rump feathers are white. Black tips on the outer primaries (flight feathers) contrast with the pale upperwing feathers. The tail is white and deeply forked with long streamers. The bill is black with a dark red base. The legs and feet are dark red. The iris is brownish-black color. Sexes are alike in plumage. The non-breeding adult has brown legs, a black bill, and a white forehead with a black mask extending from the eye to the nape.

The juvenile roseate tern has a dark brown cap, a black bill, and black legs. The back is brown and barred and appears scaly. On juveniles, there is a white trailing edge on the wing and a dark carpal (wrist) bar on the upperwing. The tail lacks the long streamers present in adults.

The flight of the roseate tern is light and graceful with rapid wingbeats. The call is a soft chew-ick and the alarm call is a harsh krack that resembles the sound of ripping fabric.

The roseate tern can be confused with the similar-appearing common tern (Sterna
hirundo) and Forster’s tern (S. forsteri). Both are fairly common in New Jersey.
The roseate tern has paler upperparts and a longer tail than the common tern. The call of the common tern is a harsh, protracted and descending kee-earrr. Unlike the roseate tern, the Forster’s tern has a gray tail and silvery gray outer primaries. The call of the Forster’s tern is a harsh, abrupt kyarr.

Image of Range of the Roseate tern in New Jersey.Zoom+ Range of the Roseate tern in New Jersey.

Distribution and Habitat

The roseate tern occurs along coastal areas in both temperate and tropical areas throughout the world. The North Atlantic breeding population is located in the northeastern United States and southern Canada, from Nova Scotia to Long Island, New York. Historic nesting records range south to Virginia.

The roseate tern is a coastal species that nests on barrier islands and salt marshes. They forage over shallow coastal waters, inlets, and offshore seas. Nesting colonies are located above the high-tide line, often within vegetated dunes. Roseate terns nest at sites with more vegetative cover than other terns found in New Jersey.


Roseate terns mainly eat small fish. They hunt by hovering over water before diving head first to catch prey. They often forage over shallow waters and concentrate on large schools of baitfish that are schooled up from larger fish like bluefish.

Life Cycle

In New Jersey, roseate terns return to their nesting areas in late April and early May. Where heavy predation pressure is absent, roseate terns exhibit a strong fidelity to their nest sites. This means that they return to the same nest sites year after year. Courting terns perform aerials displays and feed their mates to help establish pair bonds.

Roseate terns nest in colonies that often occur with other terns. Unlike some other terns, roseates prefer to nest within areas of dense vegetation, like sand dunes. They make a scrape in the sand where the female lays a clutch of one to two buff colored eggs. They have heavy brown streaking to help camouflage the eggs from being predated. The male and female incubate the eggs for 21 to 26 days. When a predator enters the breeding colony all of the terns take flight and bombard the intruder by dive bombing it and defecating on it. After the eggs hatch, both adults care for and feed the young. The young fledge when they are 22 to 33 days old. The adults continue to feed the young until they migrate south for the winter.

Roseate terns do not breed until they are three to four years old.

Current Threats, Status, and Conservation

Prior to 1890, the roseate tern nested along the New Jersey coast, although it was not common. From the late 1800s to the early 1900s, roseate tern populations along the Atlantic Coast were greatly reduced as a result of the millinery trade, in which birds were killed to acquire plumes for women’s hats. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which afforded legal protection to all migratory birds, coupled with a change in fashion styles, reduced the pressure on roseate terns, enabling populations to reestablish and increase. Nesting roseate terns were observed at Hereford Inlet and Five Mile Beach in the 1930s and at Brigantine in the 1940s. However, by the 1950s, populations again began to decline and continued to do so for several decades. Breeding roseate terns were documented in New Jersey in the 1970s, when nesting pairs occurred at Little Egg Inlet, Brigantine, Sandy Hook, Holgate, and Barnegat Bay. The last nesting pair in the state was recorded in 1980. Unchecked development and high levels of recreational activity along the barrier islands have resulted in habitat loss and disturbance to beach-nesting birds, attributing to the decline of this species.

Due to severe population declines in the state, the roseate tern was listed as a threatened species in New Jersey in 1979. Because of a drastic worldwide decline in its population, the roseate tern was reclassified as an endangered species in New Jersey in 1984. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service included the North Atlantic breeding population on its list of federally endangered species in 1987 because of declines resulting from human activity, gull competition, and predation. Depressed roseate tern populations are evident throughout other northeastern states, where the species is listed as endangered (Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Virginia), or threatened (Maine, New Hampshire).

Text derived from the book, Endangered and Threatened Wildlife of New Jersey. 2003. Originally written by Sherry Liguori. Edited by B.E. Beans & L. Niles. Edited and updated in 2010 by Ben Wurst.

Scientific Classification

Kingdom: Animalia
    Phylum: Chordata
       Class: Aves
          Order: Charadriiformes
             Family: Laridae
                Genus: Sterna
                   Species: S. dougallii

Find Related Info: Beach Nesting Birds, Endangered

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