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White Terns

By Ellen Lambeth

This delicate bird pulls off a delicate trick. There’s nothing else in the world quite like it!
Who would think that a tree branch makes the best place to lay a roly-poly egg?

Only a white tern would!

  • A female white tern lays her single egg without a nest—usually on a bare branch!
  • The egg—and later the chick—have to stay balanced on the branch. It’s tricky when the parents take turns sitting on them.
  • A parent white tern often catches several tiny fish in a row, lining them up in its bill to bring home to baby.
  • White terns are small seabirds that live in the tropics around the world. They’re sometimes called “fairy terns.”

The bird aglow in sunlight (below) has a simple, no-nonsense name: white tern. White terns are small seabirds found in the tropics around the globe. As you can see, they’re completely snow-white, except for a ring of black feathers around each eye. The eye rings give the birds a sweet, appealing look. Some people call them “fairy terns” because of their delicate features and the way they sometimes zip, “skip,” and hover overhead. Most of the time, white terns are out at sea. There, they dip into the water to snatch tiny fish that swim near the surface. But the time comes each year to head for small islands and start families. Ah, you think, the parents must build nests. Wrong! Instead, each pair chooses a nesting spot—usually on a tree branch. Then the female lays her single egg—right there on the bare branch!


spread 1 terns


Maybe not quite. But the chick is definitely growing in its flight feathers and growing out of its fuzzy down. Soon, it will leave its branch behind for good. The parents will keep feeding it for a while. But it will quickly learn to fish for itself out at sea. With luck, it will one day return to the island—and begin a brand-new balancing act!

As soon as the egg hatches, the tern chick clings tightly to the branch. Good thing it has strong feet and claws, right out of the shell! A chick with grip can balance better than an egg, though strong winds can still make trouble. Either the mom or dad stays close for the first day or two. But soon, both are off on frequent fishing trips. After all, they need to keep their noisy little one fed—and find their own meals, too.


speard 2 terns


Back and forth from sea to tree go the two parent terns. They’re catching and delivering meals of tiny fish. Sometimes they catch several in a row, line them up in their bills, and feed them, one after the other, to their baby. The meal here looks like a real mouthful!

It’s tricky to balance an egg on a branch. (For sure, a stiff wind can be an egg’s worst enemy.) Sitting on the egg might help keep it in place, but the parents must take turns. How do they switch places without knocking their egg off? Verrrry carefully!


  “White Terns” originally appeared in the May 2010 issue of Ranger Rick magazine.
(Click on each image above for a closer view of the story.)

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