Sterna hirundo (Common tern) 

Gewone sterretjie [Afrikaans]; Unothenteza (also applied to Arctic tern) [Xhosa]; Visdiefje [Dutch]; Sterne pierregarin [French]; Flußseeschwalbe [German]; Gaivina-comum [Portuguese]

Life > Eukaryotes > Opisthokonta > Metazoa (animals) > Bilateria > Deuterostomia > Chordata > Craniata > Vertebrata (vertebrates)  > Gnathostomata (jawed vertebrates) > Teleostomi (teleost fish) > Osteichthyes (bony fish) > Class: Sarcopterygii (lobe-finned fish) > Stegocephalia (terrestrial vertebrates) > Tetrapoda (four-legged vertebrates) > Reptiliomorpha > Amniota > Reptilia (reptiles) > Romeriida > Diapsida > Archosauromorpha > Archosauria > Dinosauria (dinosaurs) > Saurischia > Theropoda (bipedal predatory dinosaurs) > Coelurosauria > Maniraptora > Aves (birds) > Order: Charadriiformes > Family: Laridae > Genus: Sterna

Sterna hirundo (Common tern) 

Common tern in non-breeding plumage, Lambert's Bay, South Africa. [photo Trevor Hardaker ©]

Sterna hirundo (Common tern)  Sterna hirundo (Common tern) 

Common tern in post-breeding moult, pelagic trip off of Cape Town, South Africa. [photo Trevor Hardaker ©]

Common tern in non-breeding plumage, pelagic trip off of Cape Town, South Africa [photo Trevor Hardaker ©]

Distribution and habitat

Breeds from North America through western Europe to Asia, heading south in the non-breeding season to the Caribbean, South America, south-western Europe, South-East Asia, Australia and the entire coastline of Africa. It is a very common non-breeding migrant to the coast of southern Africa, occurring in pretty much all coastal habitats.

Distribution of Common tern in southern Africa, based on statistical smoothing of the records from first SA Bird Atlas Project (© Animal Demography unit, University of Cape Town; smoothing by Birgit Erni and Francesca Little). Colours range from dark blue (most common) through to yellow (least common). See here for the latest distribution from the SABAP2.  

Predators and parasites

Movements and migrations

Birds originating from the Baltic Sea arrive in August and September, while the less prolific east European birds arrive about two months later. Both subspecies leave in the period from February-May, departing in large flocks in the evening.


Mainly eats small fish and crustaceans, doing most of its foraging by flying over water while looking downwards; if prey is spotted it momentarily hovers before plunge-diving to catch the animal.


Not threatened, in fact it is the most widespread and second most abundant tern in the world, although its  numbers have decreased at many breeding sites and its range is contracting.


  • Hockey PAR, Dean WRJ and Ryan PG 2005. Roberts - Birds of southern Africa, VIIth ed. The Trustees of the John Voelcker Bird Book Fund, Cape Town. 



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