Arctic Tern Fact File
The arctic tern is a small bird which has mostly pale grey feathers with a white check patch and a black cap running across the crown. The bill is colored blood red with a black tip for most of the year. This is lost during the breeding season.
They have short and relatively weak legs which are colored orange and have webbing between each of the toes.
Their tail has two ‘streamers’ coming out from either side which can reach up to 11.5cm (4.5in) long.
Arctic terns have long wings which allow them to be agile, fast and energy efficient while in flight. This is helpful to conserve energy during their yearly migration.
The body of an arctic tern will measure between 33 and 35cm (13-14in) long with an average weight of between 95 and 125g (3.5-4oz). Their wingspan is between 66 and 77cm (26-30.3in) long.
Arctic terns are carnivores. Their diet is made up of fish and crustaceans along with the occasional insect. When arriving at the breeding grounds they have been known to eat a small number of berries.
While in flight they will use their sharp eyes to spot fish in the ocean below. They will hover above the food item before plunge diving in to the ocean below to grab it.
Average – 13 years
Record – 34 years
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Arctic terns live at the poles undertaking the longest migration of any bird each year moving between the Arctic and Antarctic regions. This means they will have two summers each year.
Breeding takes place in the following countries – Belgium, Estonia, Faroe Islands, Greenland, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, Norway, Russia, Spain, Svalbard and Jan Mayen, United Kingdom and the United States.
Their migration will take them through a number of countries on their way to Antarctica.
This species will breed along the coastlines and on offshore islands along with inland on tundra and forest tundra. Nesting occurs on sand and shingle beaches along with rocky ground.
Breeding takes place from May to July. The timing of this varies based on the temperature at the nesting site. There may be only a single pair or hundreds of pairs at the nesting site. Males and females will perform a courtship in the air. Mates typically remain together for life.
Nesting takes place on the ground. The nest is a scrape in the soil or turf. It may be lined with a few bits of plant material and debris. They will also make use of artificial structures in human inhabited areas.
Their eggs resemble small stones helping to camouflage them. Between 1 and 3 eggs which are colored pale olive with black and brown blotches will be deposited in the nest. Both parents will work together to incubate the eggs over 20-24 days.
Hatchlings vary in color with some having grey down and the others being brown. Chicks in the same nest may not be the same color.
Within 1-3 days of hatching the young may leave the nest and find a hiding place.
Their first flight takes place between 21 and 28 days old but they remain with their parents for a further 1-2 months.
Sexual maturity is reached at 4 years old.
Arctic terns undertake the longest migration of any animal. Each year they may make a round trip measuring 50,000km (31,070miles) each year taking them from the Arctic down to Antarctica and then back to the Arctic again.
Their migration route may not be the most direct but instead makes use of wind currents to give them the easiest possible flight.
Over winter the flight feathers are molted and replaced.
The call of the Arctic tern includes a shrill “kee-kee” or “kee-kahr.”
Predators and Threats
Natural predators of the Arctic tern include foxes, raccoons, rats and seabirds such as gulls.
Invasive populations of the American mink reduce their reproductive success through nest predation. In some areas humans will also remove the eggs from their nest.
Climate change threatens to remove 50% of the breeding habitats used by the arctic tern.
Previously they were hunted in large numbers for their feathers which were used in clothing.
The use of the pesticide DDT led to the death of many terns which would eat fish which had consumed this poison.
Arctic terns spend the most time in daylight of any animal on Earth.
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