Elegant Tern

Thalasseus elegans

Last updated: February 26, 2022
Verified by: AZ Animals Staff
© Thomas Morris/Shutterstock.com

Have a lifespan of 20 years or more


Elegant Tern Scientific Classification

Scientific Name
Thalasseus elegans

Read our Complete Guide to Classification of Animals.

Elegant Tern Conservation Status

Elegant Tern Facts

Small fish, crustaceans
Fun Fact
Have a lifespan of 20 years or more
Estimated Population Size
Biggest Threat
Loss of food source
Most Distinctive Feature
Black cap of feathers
Other Name(s)
43 inches
Litter Size
One to two eggs
Lagoons, rocky coastal areas
Foxes, dogs
Common Name
North America, South America
Nesting Location
Bare ground

Elegant Tern Physical Characteristics

  • Grey
  • Black
  • White
Skin Type
Top Speed
24 mph
Up to 21 years
7-12 oz
15-17 inches

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“Elegant Terns can live to be 20 years old or more.”

Elegant Terns are social birds with a loud call that sounds like, ‘kar-eek!’ They live throughout a range of rocky coastal areas, lagoons, and bays in North and South America. An adult has white feathers and a dark cap or mask, of black feathers over its eyes and on the top of its head. They have a lifespan of 20 plus years.

3 Elegant Tern Amazing Facts

  • They have one to two eggs in a clutch
  • Their conservation status is Near Threatened
  • They have a long, bright yellow bill

Where To Find Elegant Tern

The Elegant Tern can be found in the United States on the coast of California and down through the western coast of Mexico all the way to South America. In the summer season, Elegant Terns are most likely to be found in the northern part of California’s coast. But the migration route they take in the autumn to find warmer temperatures runs south to Peru and Chile.

The habitat of these seabirds includes rocky coastal areas, bays, and lagoons. They gather in large groups and are especially visible during the spring and summer. These birds are known for their loud calling behavior.

Elegant Tern Nests

Elegant Terns scrape the ground with their bill to make a very shallow indentation. This indentation serves as their nest. Sometimes the mating pair create a thin border of twigs around the indentation. This nest is just large enough to accommodate two eggs.

Elegant Tern Scientific Name

Thalasseus elegans is the scientific name of the Elegant Tern. The word Thalassa is Greek meaning sea while the Latin word elegans translates to elegant. Its class is Aves and it’s in the Laridae family.

Elegant Tern Appearance & Behavior

An Elegant Tern has white feathers on its body with wings of light gray. It has a black mask of feathers on its face and head. One of the most notable things about this bird is its long, bright yellow bill. It’s perfect for plunging into the water to catch small fish. This seabird walks along on two thin black legs.

An Elegant Tern’s weight is seven to 12 ounces, and it measures 15 to 17 inches long. Its wingspan is 43 inches.

In terms of defensive features, this bird can use its bill to fight other birds and perhaps even drive away small predators. However, its main defense is the fact that it lives in large groups. In fact, there can be hundreds of terns living on one shoreline. So, whenever a predator approaches most members of the flock are able to escape.

Elegant tern, Thalasseus elegans, in flight over a marsh as it fishes for food.
Elegant tern, Thalasseus elegans, in flight over a marsh as it fishes for food.


Elegant Tern Migration Pattern and Timing

This bird does have a specific migration route when the season changes from summer to fall. As the summer season approaches, Elegant Terns start on a route north up the coast of California. Starting in April or May they breed in these areas. When the season turns to fall, these birds start moving on a route south and sometimes end up as far south as Peru or Chile in South America.

Elegant Tern vs. Caspian Tern

The Elegant Tern shares similar features with several other types of terns. One of those is the Caspian Tern. At first glance, the black-feathered mask of both of these birds can make it easy to mix them up. In addition, both the Caspian and the Elegant Tern have white and gray feathers along with a brightly colored bill. But look closely at these two birds and you’ll see some differences.

For one, a Caspian Tern has a red bill whereas an Elegant Tern has a yellow bill. Another noticeable difference is the Caspian Tern at 24 inches long is much larger than the Elegant Tern. Plus, the Caspian Tern has a wingspan of 57 inches whereas an Elegant Tern’s wingspan is 43 inches.

In terms of the range of these birds, the Elegant Tern lives in coastal North and South America. Alternatively, the Caspian Tern is found on several continents including North America, Africa, Australia, and Europe.

Elegant Tern vs. Royal Tern

The Royal Tern is another bird that has a lot in common with the Elegant Tern. Both birds share a similar coloration of white and gray feathers. Each has a brightly colored bill and thin black legs.

One of the main differences between these birds relates to size. The Royal Tern is larger than the Elegant Tern. The Royal Tern weighs 12 to 16 ounces and is 18 to 20 inches long. Also, though each bird’s bill is brightly colored, the Elegant Tern’s bill is longer and curved.

Elegant Tern Diet

This bird’s diet is carnivorous.

What does the Elegant Tern eat?

Anchovies and other small fish make up the main part of this bird’s diet. It also eats crustaceans.

Elegant Tern Predators, Threats and Conservation Status

What eats Elegant Terns?

Foxes, dogs, and larger birds are predators of Elegant Terns.

The predators of this bird live near or within the same habitat. For instance, a fox may be able to capture an adult Elegant Tern or find a nest of chicks.

The Elegant Tern is categorized as Near Threatened with a stable population. Overfishing by humans has caused a drop in their supply of food. In addition, extreme weather events like hurricanes have killed off fish.

Elegant Tern Reproduction, Young and Molting

Elegant Terns lay one to two eggs in a single clutch in late spring or early summer. The incubation period of their eggs is four weeks. During that time, both the male and female take turns watching over the eggs.

After the eggs hatch, the chicks stay in their nest for about seven days. Then, they move to a large group of other chicks. This group of chicks is called a creche and can number in the hundreds!

Parents feed their chicks while they’re in the creche. They locate their young by listening for their chick’s unique call.

The chicks fledge at 35 days old and leave the creche. For the next five months, the young stay near their parents, then goes off to live independently. Elegant Terns can live past the age of 20 years.

Elegant Tern Population

The population of this bird is between 51,000 and 90,000 individuals. Their conservation status is Near Threatened, but their population is stable.

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Elegant Tern FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

What does an Elegant Tern look like?

An Elegant Tern has white feathers on most of its body paired with gray wings. Its head is covered with a black cap or mask of feathers. This bird’s bill is long and bright yellow.

What is the scientific name for the Elegant Tern?

Thalasseus elegans is its scientific name.

Does an Elegant Tern migrate?

Yes. This bird has a migration route that runs north for the summer season and south for the winter season.

How many eggs does an Elegant Tern lay?

An Elegant Tern lays one to two eggs in one clutch.

How fast does an Elegant Tern fly?

This bird can fly 22 to 25 mph.

What is an Elegant Tern’s wingspan?

The wingspan of this bird is 43 inches.

When do Elegant Tern’s leave the nest?

The chicks leave the nest after a week to join a large group or creche of other chicks. They stay there for 35 days, then return to their parents to live near them for around five months. From that time on, they can live independently.

How many Elegant Terns are there?

Their population is reportedly 51,000 to 90,000 individuals.

Are Elegant Terns Endangered?

No. These birds have a conservation status of Near Threatened.

Where is the Elegant Tern?

This bird lives along the west coast of the United States and Mexico extending down into South America. They live in different areas within this range during different seasons.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.


  1. IUCN Redlist / Accessed February 23, 2022
  2. Sonoma County Bird Watching Spots / Accessed February 23, 2022
  3. USGS / Accessed February 23, 2022
  4. The California State University / Accessed February 23, 2022
  5. Wikipedia / Accessed February 23, 2022
  6. Wikipedia / Accessed February 23, 2022
  7. National Park Service / Accessed February 23, 2022

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