Nest along coasts; feed in coastal to open ocean (pelagic) waters
Active (diving) predator
Order Charadriiformes (gulls, auks, and relatives), Family Sternidae (terns)
The Arctic tern is generally thought to have the largest geographical range and largest individual home ranges of any species on Earth. These birds live from pole to pole and undergo yearly migrations between the Arctic and Antarctica. Throughout their lifetimes, Arctic terns travel a greater total distance than almost any other species.
Like all terns, the Arctic tern gets most of its food from marine sources. They primarily eat small, schooling fishes and pelagic invertebrates, but they are known to take some terrestrial invertebrates and even berries near their nesting sites, when breeding. Arctic terns are divers and feed by plunging into surface waters at high speeds and chasing their prey underwater.
As in all seabirds, Arctic terns nest on land. This species nests exclusively in the Arctic but spends much of the rest of the year migrating across the globe. For each Arctic winter, they migrate to Antarctica for the southern hemisphere summer. This yearly migration means that not only does the species have a global range but each individual has a global home range. Utilization of areas so geographically distant is very rare. Arctic terns mate for life and form large breeding colonies where several pairs nest together. Each Arctic summer, these birds return to their preferred nesting areas, find their mates, and breed. During courtship and nesting, the males forage relatively close to the nest and provide the female with a steady diet of fish. After approximately a month of incubation, the egg hatches, and the parents continue to care for the young birds for about three more weeks. After that short time, the juveniles learn to feed themselves. Arctic terns are sexually mature after three or four years and live to be at least 30 years old.
Egg and chick predation by gulls and invasive cats or other small mammals is the largest threat to nesting Arctic terns. When not nesting, this species does not have any natural predators. The Arctic tern is fairly common, and scientists consider it to be a species of least concern. Historically, hunting reduced population size in some places, but as a whole the species is not at risk of extinction.
Oceana joined forces with Sailors for the Sea, an ocean conservation organization dedicated to educating and engaging the world’s boating community. Sailors for the Sea developed the KELP (Kids Environmental Lesson Plans) program to create the next generation of ocean stewards. Click here or below to download hands-on marine science activities for kids.