Species Profile and Threats Database

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EPBC Act Listing Status Listed marine
Listed migratory - CAMBA, JAMBA
Adopted/Made Recovery Plans
Federal Register of
    Legislative Instruments
List of Migratory Species (13/07/2000) (Commonwealth of Australia, 2000b) [Legislative Instrument].
Declaration under section 248 of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 - List of Marine Species (Commonwealth of Australia, 2000c) [Legislative Instrument].
Scientific name Chlidonias niger [805]
Family Laridae:Charadriiformes:Aves:Chordata:Animalia
Species author (Linnaeus,1758)
Infraspecies author  
Distribution map Species Distribution Map not available for this taxon.
Illustrations Google Images

Scientific Name: Chlidonias niger

Common Name: Black Tern

Other English names: Eurasian Black Tern, North American Black Tern (AOU 1998; Avibase 2008a; Gill & Wright 2006, 2008; Gochfeld & Burger 1996; Higgins & Davies 1996).

The Black Tern is a conventionally accepted species (Christidis & Boles 2008; Higgins & Davies 1996). The genus Chlidonias is sometimes merged into Sterna (Gochfeld & Burger 1996).

Two subspecies are accepted: C. n. niger, Eurasian Black Tern, and C. n. surinamensis, North American Black Tern.

The Black Tern is a fairly small, slender and compact marsh tern (total length: 22–28 cm; mean adult weight (C. n. surinamensis): 65 g [Higgins & Davies 1996]), with fairly short wings and tail, the latter only slightly forked.

In adult breeding plumage, the head, neck, breast and belly are black, grading to blackish-grey on the saddle, and with dark-grey rest of upperparts; the black breast is sharply demarcated from the white vent and undertail-coverts. The upperwing shows a narrow whitish leading edge, and the underwing has off-white coverts and dark-grey remiges. The bill, legs and feet are black or black tinged reddish-brown, and the eyes are dark brown (Cramp 1985; Higgins & Davies 1996; Olsen & Larsson 1995).

In adult non-breeding plumage, the head and neck are white with a neat black cap and a black notch extending from the cap behind the eye to the ear-coverts, and with a small black patch in front of the eye. The rest of the upperparts are dark grey with a dusky cubital bar on the upperwing and varyingly contrasting dusky secondary bar and wedge on outer primaries. The underbody is white with a dusky grey patch on the sides of the breast extending upwards to meet the grey of the mantle and grading into the greyish flanks. The underwing-coverts are whiter than in adult breeding. The bill, legs and feet are black to dark brown (Cramp 1985; Higgins & Davies 1996; Olsen & Larsson 1995).

Juveniles are like non-breeding adults but the upperparts are browner grey overall, with a darker grey mantle and with darker bands and pale-brown scaling to the saddle, tertials and inner upperwing-coverts. The markings of the upperwing are also weaker. Below, the markings at the side of the breast are larger, grading into a more extensive brownish-grey wash on the flanks. The bill can be slightly paler and browner at the base than in non-breeding adults, and in some it is red-brown. First year immatures are not readily distinguishable from non-breeding adults (Cramp 1985; Higgins & Davies 1996; Olsen & Larsson 1995).

Black Terns are highly social and gregarious within their normal range, often foraging in small flocks or loose congregations. However, only solitary vagrants have been reported in Australia.

Black Terns often forage and roost with other terns, especially other marsh terns, the White-winged Black Tern (C. leucopterus) and Whiskered Tern (C. hybrida), as well as Common Terns (Sterna hirundo). One Australian vagrant was seen with a mixed flock of Caspian Terns (Hydroprogne caspia), White-fronted Terns (Sterna striata) and Crested Terns (S. bergii). The usual flight call is a quiet kik-kik-kik but birds also give a sharper teek-teek or teeuw in alarm. One of the few birds recorded in Australia gave a high-pitched kee-kee-kee (Bell 1959; Cramp 1985; Dunn & Agro 1995; Higgins & Davies 1996; Rogers 1969b).

The species is a rare vagrant to Australia, with all reports of single birds. Only three records have been accepted by the Birds Australia Rarities Committee (BARC) (Patterson 1991), all from NSW:

  • The Entrance, 18 September 1958 (Bell 1959)
  • on the Hunter River, Newcastle, 13 January
  • on the Hunter River, Newcastle, 30 March 1968 (Rogers 1969b).

A fourth record, at Boat Harbour, NSW, on 10 and 17 March 1990 (Pegler 1990) was accepted by the NSW Ornithological Rarities Appraisal Committee (NSWORAC [NSW Field Ornithologists Club]) (Morris 1992). It has not been vetted by BARC (Higgins & Davies 1996).

Three other claims are not accepted. One is from Wanaaring, NSW (Miller & Lalas 1974), which Hobbs (1975) considered doubtful and which is now considered misidentification of juvenile Whiskered Terns (A.K. Morris 2008, pers. comm.). Two others, one from Lake Joondalup, Western Australia (Jacobs 1975) and one from Woody Head, near Iluka, NSW, on 21 April 2007, have not been accepted by BARC (Patterson 1991; A.K. Morris 2008, pers. comm.).

There is no estimate of the extent of occurrence of this species in Australia, but it would be negligible, with only four acceptable records. The species has a very large worldwide range, with an estimated global extent of occurrence of 10 000 000 km² (BirdLife International 2007g). The source of this estimate is not known, and there are no available data to indicate past declines or future changes.

The species is a vagrant to Australia and, while there is no estimate of the area of occupancy in Australia, given its vagrant status, it would be negligible.

There are no known captive populations of this species and the species has not been reintroduced into the wild in Australia or elsewhere.

The species has a large and continuous range in non-breeding periods. Breeding is confined to the Northern Hemisphere. The two subspecies of Black Tern have a widespread and largely continuous breeding distribution in North America and in Eurasia, though some breeding populations appear isolated. However, overall the distribution does not appear to be fragmented.

C. n. niger breeds in Eurasia, from Iceland and northern Europe east to northern-central Russia and eastern Siberia and south to the Mediterranean, Caspian and Aral Seas.

C. n. surinamensis breeds in North America, from British Columbia east to southern Quebec and Nova Scotia and south to southern-central California and northern Nevada in the western United States of America and Maine in the east (during the breeding season, non-breeding birds are recorded south along the Pacific coast as far as Panama, in the southern interior of the United States of America, and along the Atlantic coast south to the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, where they are abundant).

In non-breeding periods, C. n. niger migrates south through southern Europe to coastal Africa, mainly to tropical West Africa, from the Gulf of Guinea south to Namibia, with other records elsewhere along the southern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, Nile River and in South Africa east as far as about Durban. Some also winter on the Black and Caspian Seas, and in Transbaikalia and Mongolia.

C. n. surinamensis migrates through the interior of North America south of the breeding range and along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, through Central America and the West Indies to winter on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of South America, including the northern coast of South America, from Panama south to Peru in the Pacific Ocean and to Surinam in the Atlantic Ocean. The species is often recorded far out to sea on passage.

Black Terns are recorded as vagrants or rare visitors to the North Atlantic, Middle East, Persian Gulf, India, Alaska, the Hawaiian and Galapagos Islands, Chile, northern Argentina and Australia (AOU 1998; Cramp 1985; Dunn & Agro 1995; Gochfeld & Burger 1996; Higgins & Davies 1996).

The species has a large global population, estimated to be 650 000–1 750 000 individuals (Gochfeld & Burger 1996; Wetlands International 2006). The global population of both subspecies is believed to be decreasing, but the species is not believed to approach the thresholds for the population decline criterion of the IUCN Red List (i.e. declining more than 30% in 10 years or three generations). Globally, the species is listed of Least Concern (BirdLife International 2007g; Wetlands International 2006). Nevertheless, many local or regional populations were in decline, though some have stabilised or are increasing (Gochfeld & Burger 1996).

Populations of this tern have declined markedly in parts of North America and Europe, at least since the 1960s. Loss of wetlands on breeding grounds and migration routes is probably a major cause, but food supplies may have been reduced through agricultural control of insects and over-fishing in the marine winter range (Dunn & Agro 1995; Gochfeld & Burger 1996).

The proportion of the global population in Australia is not known but it would be miniscule given the few records in relation to the size of the total population. Individuals recorded in Australia are probably of the American subspecies C. n. surinamensis (Higgins & Davies 1996).

The species is well known in North America and Europe. No surveys have been conducted for this species in Australia.

The Black Tern is a non-breeding vagrant to Australia. Breeding populations are not fragmented over most of the species' breeding range, though some breeding populations in North America and Europe appear to be isolated (e.g. disjunct populations in Kansas, Indiana and North Vermont in the United States of America) (Gochfeld & Burger 1996).

The species is not known to undergo extreme natural fluctuations in numbers or range.

There are no data on generation length for Australia or elsewhere.

Black Terns have hybridised with White-winged Black Terns (Gochfeld & Burger 1996; McCarthy 2006).

There are no populations of Black Terns in Australia that occur in reserves. The species was listed as one of a number of migratory species recorded using the Gwydir Wetlands in discussing the addition of this site to the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance (Commonwealth of Australia 1999). This record of the species, however, has not been accepted. Further, the wetlands would neither be actively managed for this species, nor likely to be of importance to the species.

Individual Black Terns in Australia have been recorded in coastal environments, including sheltered lagoons and estuaries, and on a rock platform near a coastal embayment (Bell 1959; Rogers 1969b; Pegler 1990).

The species usually breeds in fairly large (approximately 4 ha or greater), well-vegetated freshwater wetlands with much marginal, emergent or floating vegetation, including lakes, marshes, peat bogs and wet meadows. The species occasionally breeds in brackish, terrestrial wetlands. The depth of water of the wetlands is usually 1–2 m.

Black Terns forage over both wetlands and drier habitats. After breeding, the species occurs around lakes, reservoirs and sewage farms. They generally occupy more marine habitats in non-breeding areas, mainly sheltered coastal embayments and estuaries, as well as near-coastal lagoons, lakes, reservoirs, sewage farms, rivers and saltmarsh, and rarely occur far inland (AOU 1998; Blake 1977; Cramp 1985; Dunn & Agro 1995; Gochfeld & Burger 1996; Hickey & Malecki 1997; Higgins & Davies 1996; Mazzocchi et al. 1997; McLaren 1954).

The North American breeding populations of Black Terns shift to more marine habitats in the boreal winter, preferring productive waters, especially off the Pacific coast of Panama, and the species often concentrates where small prey have been driven to the surface by predatory fish (Dunn & Agro 1995).

Black Terns are not known to use refuge habitats.

Black Terns are not known to rely on any threatened ecological community in Australia, nor are they specifically associated with any threatened species, though they potentially share habitat with such species.

Black Terns probably first breed near the end of their second year (Cramp 1985; Dunn & Agro 1995; Higgins & Davies 1996). First-year birds often remain south of the breeding range in their first breeding season, including through their non-breeding range, though some first-year subspecies surinamensis visit breeding colonies (Blake 1977; Cramp 1985; Higgins & Davies 1996). Expected annual adult survival in North America is 70–75% (Dunn & Agro 1995). The maximum recorded age of C.n. surinamensis is eight years five months (Dunn & Agro 1995), but a C. n. niger was recorded living for seventeen years two months (Gochfeld & Burger 1996).

Black Terns breed only in the Northern Hemisphere. In the Northern Hemisphere, the breeding season is mainly May to June, extending to August (Cramp 1985; Dunn & Agro 1995; Gochfeld & Burger 1996; Higgins & Davies 1996). In North America, Black Terns nest semi-colonially in biologically rich wetlands (Dunn & Agro 1995). Nests are flimsy, often floating on emergent vegetation, and are easily destroyed by wind or changing water levels. Reproductive success varies greatly. Adaptations to marsh nesting include frequent re-nesting, low site-tenacity, and egg-shell morphology suited to damp conditions (Dunn & Agro 1995). Overall nesting success is 20–40%, and production averages 1.3–2.1 young per year (Gochfeld & Burger 1996). However, Dunn and Agro (1995) state that while productivity varies greatly, probably less than one chick is raised per nest in most cases.

Black Terns readily breed or forage on artificial wetlands, such as sewage settling ponds and restored wetlands, and often use nesting platforms, which can lead to higher productivity where water levels fluctuate (Dunn & Agro 1995).

In non-breeding areas, including Australia, Black Terns mostly forage in estuarine and coastal habitats, and primarily feed on marine fish, but also take some insects, crustaceans and molluscs. When breeding, the species mainly feeds on insects and other invertebrates (Dunn & Agro 1995; Cramp 1985; Gochfeld & Burger 1996).

Black Terns usually forage by sallying in the air and by contact-dipping, less often by hover-dipping or, occasionally, by plunge-diving. They are usually diurnal, and often forage with White-winged Black Terns (Dunn & Agro 1995; Gochfeld & Burger 1996).

Black Terns are migratory, breeding in the Northern Hemisphere in the boreal spring–summer and migrating to equatorial regions and the Southern Hemisphere for the boreal winter. Birds leave breeding areas of the western Palaearctic in late June to July and are on passage in Africa from late July to November. Populations breeding in North America leave their breeding areas and are recorded on passage from late July to October (Cramp 1985; Dunn & Agro 1995; Gochfeld & Burger 1996; Higgins & Davies 1996; van der Winden 2002). Adult C. n. niger leave their non-breeding grounds in Africa in late March, and are recorded on passage till May. The subspecies C. n. surinamensis is recorded on passage in North America in March-June (Cramp 1985; Dunn & Agro 1995; Gochfeld & Burger 1996; Higgins & Davies 1996; van der Winden 2002). Accepted records of vagrants in Australia have been from September, January and March (Higgins & Davies 1996).

There is no information on home-ranges or territories for Black Terns in Australia.

Black Terns are similar to the other marsh terns occurring in Australia, the White-winged Black Tern and Whiskered Tern. Adult breeding Black Terns are highly distinctive and should not be confused with other species. Non-breeding and juvenile plumages can also be distinguished with experience, by the combination of small size, only slightly forked tail, head-pattern, dark-grey upperparts and diagnostic dark patches at sides of breast. Nevertheless confusion between these species does occurs.

The species is only likely to be recorded in Australia in the austral spring–summer following migration from its Northern Hemisphere breeding grounds. Targeted surveys of this species in Australia are not worthwhile due to the infrequency of occurrence in Australia.

Black Terns are not considered threatened within Australia, as they occur only as rare vagrants. Measures adopted for other coastal terns would be of potential benefit to individuals of this species. Populations in both North America and Europe have declined markedly, at least since the 1960s, probably mainly through loss and degradation of wetlands on breeding grounds and migration routes (for agriculture, through human disturbance or growth of unsuitable vegetation). Reduction in food supplies through agricultural control of insects and over-fishing in the marine winter range may also pose a threat (Beintema 1997; Blakoel & Weseloh 1997b; Dunn & Agro 1995; Gochfeld & Burger 1996). However, in North America, clear, widespread declines appear to have taken place only or mainly in the 1960s and 1970s and many populations, at least in eastern North America, appear now to be fairly stable (Nisbet 1997).

Nesting Black Terns are tolerant of nearby human activity as long as colonies are not entered (Dunn & Agro 1995).

No threat abatement or recovery actions are being taken in Australia.

There are no studies of Black Terns in Australia. Detailed summaries of current knowledge of the species in Australasia are found in Higgins and Davies (1996), and international summaries are available in Cramp (1985), Dunn and Agro (1995), Gochfeld and Burger (1996) and Urban and colleagues (1986). A special symposium on the biology, status and management of the Black Tern in North America, which included some information from Europe, was held in October 1996 and the results published in the journal Colonial Waterbirds (Blakoel & Weseloh 1997).

There are no management documents for the Black Tern in Australia.

The following table lists known and perceived threats to this species. Threats are based on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) threat classification version 1.1.

Threat Class Threatening Species References
Uncategorised:Uncategorised:threats not specified Chlidonias niger in Species Profile and Threats (SPRAT) database (Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2006fl) [Internet].

American Ornithologists Union (AOU) (1998). Check-list of North American Birds. Seventh Edition. Washington, DC: American Ornitholoigsts Union.

Avibase (2008a). Black Tern (Chlidonias niger). Viewed 9 April 2008. [Online]. Available from:

Beintema, A.J. (1997). European Black Terns (Chlidonias niger) in trouble: examples of dietary problems. Colonial Waterbirds. 20(3):558-565.

Bell, H.L. (1959). An Australian sight record of the Black Tern. Emu. 59:62-63.

BirdLife International (2007g). Species factsheet: Chlidonias niger. BirdLife International, Cambridge, UK. Viewed 9 April 2008. [Online]. Available from:

Blake, E.R. (1977). Manual of Neotropical Birds. Volume 1. Spheniscidae (Penguins) to Laridae (Gulls and Allies). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Blakoel, H. & D.V.C. Weseloh (1997b). Status, biology and management of the Black Tern in North America: Introduction to the Symposium. Colonial Waterbirds. 20:556-557.

Blakoel, H. & D.V.C. Weseloh. (Eds) (1997). Status, biology and management of the Black Terns in North America. Colonial Waterbirds. 20:556-625.

Christidis, L. & W.E. Boles (2008). Systematics and Taxonomy of Australian Birds. Collingwood, Victoria: CSIRO Publishing.

Commonwealth of Australia (1999). Tenth Consultative Meeting of the Agreement Between the Government of Australia and the Government of Japan for the Protection of Migratory Birds and Birds in Danger of Extinction and Their Environment and the Fourth Consultative Meeting of the Agreement. Canberra, Commonwealth of Australia.

Cramp, S. (1985). Handbook of the Birds of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa: The Birds of the Western Palearctic. Volume 4. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dunn, E.H. & D.J. Agro (1995). Black Tern (Chlidonias niger). No. 147 In: The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole Ed.). Viewed 9 April 2008. [Online]. Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Available from:

Gill, F. & M. Wright (2006). Birds of the World: Recommended English Names. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Gill, F. & M. Wright (2008). IOC English Names of Birds Project (version 1.1). Viewed 21 April 2008. [Online]. Available from:

Gochfeld, M. & J. Burger (1996). Family Sternidae (Terns). In: del Hoyo, J A. Elliott & J. Sargatal, eds. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 3: Hoatzin to Auks. Page(s) 624-667. Barcelona: Lynx Edicions.

Hickey, J.M. & R.A. Malecki (1997). Nest site selection of the Black Tern in western New York. Colonial Waterbirds. 20(3):582-595.

Higgins, P.J. & S.J.J.F. Davies, eds (1996). Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic Birds. Volume Three - Snipe to Pigeons. Melbourne, Victoria: Oxford University Press.

Hobbs, J.N. (1975). The Wanaaring Black Tern. Australian Birds. 10:10-11.

Jacobs, S. (1975). The Black Tern near Perth. Western Australian Naturalist. 13:61-2.

Mazzocchi, I.M., J.M. Hickey & R.L. Miller (1997). Productivity and nesting habitat characteristics of the Black Tern in northern New York. Colonial Waterbirds. 20(3):596-603.

McCarthy, E.M. (2006). Handbook of Avian Hybrids of the World. New York: Oxford University Press.

McLaren, P.I.R. (1954). Notes on Palaearctic terns and waders in West Africa. Ibis. 96:601-605.

Miller, B. & C. Lalas (1974). Black Tern photographed in inland New South Wales. Australian Birds. 9:14-16.

Morris, A.K. (1992). First report of the New South Wales Ornithological Records Appraisal Committee December 1992. Australian Birds. 26:71-81.

Morris, A.K. (2008). Personal communication.

Nisbet, I.C.T. (1997). Status, biology and management of the Black Tern: symposium summary and overview. Colonial Waterbirds. 20:622-625.

Olsen, K.M., & H. Larsson (1995). Terns of Europe and North America. London: Christopher Helm.

Patterson, R.M. (1991). RAOU Record Appraisal Committee opinions and case summaries 1988-1991. RAOU Report Series. 80:1-34.

Pegler, J.M. (1990). A third sighting of a Black Tern. Australian Birds. 24:5-8.

Rogers, A.E.F. (1969b). Black Tern near Newcastle, NSW. Emu. 69:238-239.

Urban, E.K., C.H. Fry & S. Keith (1986). The Birds of Africa. Volume 2. London: Academic Press.

van der Winden, J. (2002). The odyssey of the Black Tern Chlidonias niger: migration ecology in Europe and Africa. Ardea. 90(3):421-435.

Wetlands International (2006). Waterbird Population Estimates. Fourth Edition. Wageningen, The Netherlands: Wetlands International.

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This database is designed to provide statutory, biological and ecological information on species and ecological communities, migratory species, marine species, and species and species products subject to international trade and commercial use protected under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (the EPBC Act). It has been compiled from a range of sources including listing advice, recovery plans, published literature and individual experts. While reasonable efforts have been made to ensure the accuracy of the information, no guarantee is given, nor responsibility taken, by the Commonwealth for its accuracy, currency or completeness. The Commonwealth does not accept any responsibility for any loss or damage that may be occasioned directly or indirectly through the use of, or reliance on, the information contained in this database. The information contained in this database does not necessarily represent the views of the Commonwealth. This database is not intended to be a complete source of information on the matters it deals with. Individuals and organisations should consider all the available information, including that available from other sources, in deciding whether there is a need to make a referral or apply for a permit or exemption under the EPBC Act.

Citation: Department of the Environment (2014). Chlidonias niger in Species Profile and Threats Database, Department of the Environment, Canberra. Available from: Accessed Fri, 22 Aug 2014 11:00:13 +1000.