This species is most appropriately considered a tropical marine bird since it spends nearly two-thirds of the year on salt water in the southern hemisphere, coming north only to breed on freshwater marshes for a brief period in the summer (Nisbet 1997).
Black Terns were listed as an endangered species in New York State in 2000 and have been declining since the mid-1960s. Prior to 1980, the tern population was comprised of over 50 different colonies with four containing more than 100 pairs each. By 2007 only 12 different marshes supported colonies, with the largest having fewer than 50 pairs (McGowan and Corwin In Press). The range contraction within New York parallels a wider regional contraction on the species' range margin in the northeastern U.S. and Canada. The causes of this decline are unresolved and ongoing.
Since 1989 the state-wide population has been monitored semi-annually (Mazzocchi and Roggie 2004) and has declined at an annual rate of 2.2%. At the beginning of the monitoring program, Black Terns bred in 28 different marshes (44% of those monitored), while in 2007 only 12 different marshes supported breeding colonies (13% of those monitored) and only about half of those were of substantial size. Breeding colonies appear to be coalescing into fewer large wetland complexes on publicly managed lands, with the smaller outlying sites becoming extirpated. In particular, the birds have disappeared entirely from the Lake Ontario Plains in Wayne and Monroe counties in western New York State, which supported over 40 pairs as recently as the late 1980s. Nevertheless, the overall number of breeding pairs throughout the state apparently bottomed out around 2000, and by 2007 had climbed to over 200 pairs for the first time since the late 1990s.
Black Terns have nested in New York since at least the early 1900s and while turn-of -the century records are few, Eaton (1910) mentioned 150 pairs at what is now Lakeview WMA in 1903, a site that supported only 2 pairs in 2007. Prior to 1980, the statewide tern population was comprised of over 50 different colonies with four containing more than 100 pairs each. By 2007 only 12 different marshes supported colonies, with the largest having less than 50 pairs (McGowan and Corwin In Press). Montezuma NWR also had a large turn of the century colony and this wetland complex has a fairly complete set of population estimates beginning in the early 1940s; it is likely illustrative of popualtion trends throughout the state. Unpublished data (New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Files) gathered by Refuge staff show a marked population increase from the 1940s to about 1951. During the 1950s the breeding population fluctuated wildly from over 1200 pairs in some years to less than 100 pairs in other years. Beginning in the late 1960s the population crashed to below 150 pairs, again fluctuating quite dramatically from year to year until about 1980 when another crash occurred. Since the early 1980s the breeding population has remained low bottoming out during the 1990s when no terns nested at all in Montezuma; by 2007 18 pairs were counted.
Current State and Federal regulations (i.e., the Migratory Bird Treaty Act) appear to offer adequate protections to the birds themselves, though habitat protections such as the New York State Wetlands Law, and Section 404 of the Clean Water Act are not adequate to prevent all wetland habitat losses (Holst 2005). Loss, degradation, isolation, and fragmentation of wetlands via drainage for agriculture and/or urbanization are often considered to be the the primary factors for the decline of this species and other freshwater marshbirds. For example, in Canada nearly half of the wetlands along the St. Lawrence River were destroyed between 1945-75, and a similar pattern occurred on the U.S. side (Novak 1992). This has left many localized marshes that were too small themselves, or were not part of larger wetland complexes, unsuitable because Black Terns are an area- dependent species (Brown and Dinsmore 1984). Water level management on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence Seaway has undoubtedly negatively affected lakeshore marsh habitat by allowing succession to proceed, leading to the dominance of wetlands by single species monocultures such as Typha and/or Phragmites. Since the mid-1980s, virtually all of the Black Tern colonies in lakeshore marshes in Monroe/Wayne and Oswego/Jefferson/St. Lawrence Counties have either disappeared entirely or dramatically declined so that today virtually all Black Terns nest on inland marshes on public lands which have the ability to manipulate water levels. Lake Ontario/ St. Lawrence Seaway water level stabilization, implemented primarily for shipping interests, has curtailed dramatic annual water level fluctuations on these commercial waterways leading to compositional changes in marsh vegetation, diminishing their quality as tern nesting habitat (McGowan and Corwin In press). Because the Black Tern is sensitive to water level fluctuations it has been adopted as a performance indicator species by the International Joint Commission Lake Ontario - St. Lawrence River Study (www.losl.org). At inland marshes, siltation and run-off from intensive agricultural practices and urbanization leads to the eutrophication and chemical contamination of wetlands, affecting habitat quality and diminishing the invertebrate prey base. One study in the northern Great Plains found that wetland invertebrate and seedling emergence was greatly reduced by agricultural sediment loads, hampering successional changes and severely impacting nearly all key ecological functions of wetlands (Gleason et al. 2003). The highly intensive agricultural practices (i.e., large monocultures needing heavy inputs of synthetic chemicals and use of heavy machinery) adopted especially since the 1980s have been implicated not only in the severe decline of Black Terns in Europe (Bientema 1997), but also in the general decline of a whole suite of agricultural and wetland birds in the St. Lawrence Valley (Jobin et al. 1996), as well in the entire central and eastern U.S. (Murphy 2003). In certain other cases, lack of stochastic flushing events (i.e., flooding) promotes the establishment of large monotypic stands of emergent vegetation (cattails) as well as exotic invasive plants like purple loosestrife and phragmites which can become too dense and crowd out native emergent plants which provide more favorable nesting cover for nesting Black Terns and other marshbirds (Holst 2005). In addition to diminishing the insect and fish prey base and causing dietary problems for Black Terns (Bientema 1997), chemical contaminants, including organochlorines (PCBs, DDT, DDE, Dieldrin) have been detected in Black Tern eggs in Canada (Weseloh et al. 1996) and the U.S. Severe contaminant concentrations, and very poor reproductive success at a site in Monroe County was reported by Firstencel (1987). The levels of contaminants she found were about two times higher than in Black Tern eggs in Ontario and Quebec (Weseloh et al. 1996), likely causing decreases in eggshell thickness and nest failure. Because contaminant concentrations in sediments were low, Firstencel suggested that the high levels of contaminants were coming from fish (greater bioaccumulation than insects) which the terns feed to their young. Because many banned pesticides are still used in South America where the birds spend most of the year feeding on fish, exposure on the wintering grounds must also be be considered to be high. Nevertheless, strong circumstantial evidence suggests that the high levels of contamination reported by Firstencel (1987) in western New York may be at least partially responsible for the complete elimination of Black Terns from this (more industrialized) region of the State. The loss of the pre-migratory staging area at the mouth of the Niagara River, another highly polluted waterway, also lends some support to the deleterious role that chemical contamination has played in the severe decline of the Black Tern in New York. Nisbet (1997) reported that population declines in Europe were more pronounced in more highly degraded habitats than in more natural ones. Various types of human disturbance have often been cited as potential threats to nesting Black Terns. Excessive boat traffic as well as waves caused by boat wakes can swamp nests, but boat traffic did not appear to have overtly visible effects on nesting terns at four different colonies in New York (Novak 1992). Canoes moving through areas where terns are nesting produces mobbing behavior by the adults and may increase the likelihood of nest abandonment, predation or exposure to inclement weather (Novak 1992). Shealer et al. (2000) demonstrated that Black Terns have a high tolerance for intensive disturbance (repeated nest visits for trapping and banding) but that these nests suffered high (47%) mortality rates mostly due to predation. Likewise Heath and Servello (2008) documented the importance of nest predation to chick survival, but were unable to identify the predator species. Many different birds and mammals have been implicated as Black Tern nest predators (Heath and Servello 2008), but extreme caution should be taken when high nest mortality rates are provided by researchers visiting nests because both bird and mammal predators can follow human scent trails looking for prey.
A review of management actions at the Iroquois/Tonawanda/Oak Orchard wetland complex in western New York showed a consistent pattern of response by nesting Black Terns (Hickey and Malecki 1997). After the drawdown of water levels in an impoundment, the terns recolonized the wetland the year following re -flooding, reaching peak numbers in the second and third years after the drawdown. In the first year post-inundation, vegetation responded, the muskrat population grew and Black Tern nesting was likely limited by the lack of suitable nest substrates. In the second and third years, muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) feeding and house-building activities removed vegetation from the marsh, improving the interspersion of vegetation to water (50:50 ideal) and providing nesting substrates. Because muskrat structures are heavily used as nesting substrates, especially in marshes dominated by less persistent emergents such as bur-reed, their population dynamics (including the effects of trapping), suggests that muskrat ecology is an important feature to Black Tern nesting success (Hickey and Malecki 1997). Thus, a 4-6 year cycle of drawdown should be used, with re-flooding during years 2-5. Water levels should be maintained higher than normal in the first year following re-flooding in order to allow muskrat populations to recover. Removal of vegetation by muskrat herbivory benefits Black Terns by improving the interspersion of vegetative cover and open water and by increasing the availability of nesting substrates (Zimmerman et al. 2002). Because nest substrates are often limiting, the placing of artificial nest platforms, especially in the first year after drawdown, may enhance productivity (Hickey 1997).
This type of management strategy requires at least three nearby marsh impoundments to be managed on a staggered 3 year management cycle, with one of the impoundments being drained, disced, and re-flooded each year. Such a strategy is time and labor intensive, costly, and necessitates a large wetland mosaic amenable to intensive management with heavy machinery to disc up marsh vegetation (Shambaugh 1996). Since many managed areas will not have the resources and area available to implement such an intensive strategy (which also is beneficial to other marshbirds and waterfowl) other, less costly strategies have been attempted in the northern Great Plains (Linz et al. 1994; Linz and Blixt 1997). Because these management strategies involved the application of potentially dangerous herbicides to reduce cattail growth, the authors themselves recommended that manual methods were preferred, and that herbicides be used only as a last resort (Linz and Blixt 1997). Water level control measures, discing, and healthy muskrat populations could potentially all be used in concert to control dense monotypic stands of vegetation and promote the hemi-marsh stage (a 50:50 ratio of well interspersed vegetation and open water) (Zimmerman et al. 2002).
Black Terns use different wetlands or different locations within a wetland mosaic from year to year because suitability varies with yearly fluctuations of water levels and resulting vegetational changes. The presence of Black Terns is related to the total area of wetlands in the surrounding landscape; thus wetland complexes must be maintained because they are more likely to have at least some wetland components with water and plant regimes favorable for nesting. Areas of suitable habitat >10 ha that have equal proportions of well-interspersed emergent vegetation and open water, with stable water levels (> 30 cm depth) throughout the breeding season (May-June). Maintaining stable water levels during the nesting season decreases the probability of nest destruction and decreases the chances of nest predation (Zimmerman et al. 2002).
Nisbet (1997) summarized important research needs for Black Terns: 1) improve ecological understanding on the wintering grounds; 2) monitoring population trends in the main range in the prairie states and provinces; 3) measure factors limiting productivity; 4) study foraging, diet, and nutrition in relation to habitat quality, water quality, and prey populations; 5) study behavioral ecology, including nocturnal incubation, mate fidelity, spacing behavior, coloniality, dispersal, and post-fledging parental care; 6) study the demography of metapopulation dynamics; and 7) implement comparative studies across regions.
In New York specifically, determining the cause of the decline is paramount so that steps can be taken to mitigate limiting factors. Two hypotheses have generally emerged: 1) productivity problems related to contaminant effects on the birds themselves and/or their prey base, or 2) habitat alterations associated with wetland loss and modifications. Declines of this species in Europe (Bientema 1997) have essentially tied these factors together such that land use changes associated with intensive agriculture and urbanization have led to the eutrophication and contamination of wetlands, which in turn collapses the prey base and lowers productivity below that which can sustain the population. This hypothesis has also been invoked to explain ongoing declines in other agricultural avifauna in both Europe and North America (Murphy 2003).
Black Terns breed in productive freshwater marshes, typically in sites with mixtures of emergent vegetation and open water. In western New York Hickey and Malecki (1997) found that Black Terns nest primarily in sparse to moderately dense bur-reed about 26-50 cm tall in areas with a 50:50 open water/vegetation ratio, and water depths of about 50 cm. These findings were consistent with other general habitat descriptions throughout the range including in northern New York. Muskrat structures were used heavily and may reflect the vegetation type and processes that foster nest substrate formation. In marshes with less persistent emergents such as bur-reed, nest substrate formation may depend heavily on muskrat activities. Where terns nest in cattail dominated marshes, such as in northern New York (Mazzocchi et al. 1997), muskrats may not be as important since floating vegetation mats and rootstalks may form more often in marshes dominated by these more persistent emergents (also bulrushes). Exposed perches such as floating logs, fallen trees, and standing dead trees and shrubs are used as stations for resting, copulation and feeding recently fledged young (Novak 1992).
Black Terns are an area dependent species and in addition to marsh size, proximity to other wetlands is a critical factor in habitat selection. Terns favor marshes > 20 ha, but they will nest in marshes between 5-11 ha only if they are part of a larger wetland complex (Brown and Dinsmore 1984; Novak 1992). Characteristics of entire landscapes must be considered in habitat assessments because wetlands that do not correspond to landscape-scale habitat requirements may not be suitable despite favorable local conditions. Suitable nest sites occur within regenerating or degenerating wetlands where vegetation structure, rather than species of vegetation, dictates suitability (Naugle et al. 2000).
New York forms the southeastern edge of this species' range in North America. Currently it is restricted primarily to a handful of managed inland freshwater marshes in Jefferson (Dexter Marsh WMA, Lakeview WMA, Perch River WMA, Point Peninsula marsh, White Swamp, Wilson Bay marsh) Oswego (Renshaw Bay, Salmon River mouth) and St. Lawrence (Upper & Lower Lakes WMA) Counties. Breeding colonies also occur on Montezuma NWR in Seneca County and the Iroquois NWR and Oak Orchard/Tonawanda WMA wetland complex in western New York. As recently as the 1980s it occurred much more extensively on marshes throughout the Lake Ontario Plain, both inland and along the shoreline, but has since experienced a severe range contraction, especially on lakeshore marshes in central and western New York (McGowan and Corwin In press). Two pre-migratory (fall) staging areas have also both declined dramatically. One at the mouth of the Niagara River had over 5000 birds in 1965, but the terns have apparently not staged there since the late 1980s (Carroll 1988); while at Point Peninsula on Lake Ontario in Jefferson County about 500 birds were counted in 1991, but fewer than 30 in 2001 (Mazzocchi and Roggie 2004).
Black Terns have a Holarctic distribution, breeding throughout the northern hemisphere. In North America they breed from the Yukon and Northwest Territories through British Columbia and northern Saskatchewan east to Nova Scotia, south locally to southern California, Colorado, Nebraska, southern Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, northern New England (formerly to Missouri and Kentucky). Sirois and Fournier (1993) suggested that a possible recent range extension northward into the Northwest Territories could be related to increases in the ice-free season related to global warming. The current center of distribution is the northern prairie states and provinces of the U.S and Canada and In Old World (C.n. niger) from northern Europe, Russia, and Siberia south to the Mediterranean, Asia Minor, Turkestan, and Caspian and Aral Seas. In the Americas, Black Terns winter along both coasts from Mexico and Panama south to Peru, Surinam, and French Guiana; rare in Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina ( Dunn and Agro 1995).
The total length of adults is 23-26.5 cm (9-10.5 inches). In breeding plumage the head and body are black, fading to gray on the rump while the undertail coverts are white. The upper surface of the wings and tail are dark gray, and wing linings are pale gray. The bill is black and feet are a dark reddish-purple. Females are somewhat duller than males, but this difference is often difficult to distinguish in the field. The postbreeding molt begins in late June when eggs begin to hatch. White feathers appear first around eyes and cheeks, then on forehead, neck, throat and breast, and finally on the abdomen. Heavily molting adults take on a peculiar, piebald appearance. The prebasic molt is completed during fall migration.
In winter plumage, the underparts are pure white except for a small, dark patch on each side of the breast and the back becomes a shade of gray similar to the wings and tail. A blackish cap joins black ear coverts on the otherwise white head. The juvenile plumage is similar to the winter plumage, but the feathers of the back are darker and the wing coverts and cap are barred and scalloped brown.
VOCALIZATIONS: shrill, somewhat metallic alarm notes, described as "kik" or "keek", depending upon intensity and level of motivation, and a complex of contact calls described as "kyew", followed by one to four additional syllables, as "kyew-dik", "kyew-dik-ik". The "kik" call commonly serves as a signal of impending danger in the nesting area. It may also be given during the ascent portion of the courtship flight. The "keek" call is similar to, but more shrill and forceful than the "kik" call, and is given during aggressive attacks on enemies in close proximity to the nest. The frequency of repetition increases as the terns become more aggressive. The "kyew" calls are given as parents approach and leave the nest, during foraging flights, by adults accompanied in flight by young, by parents calling to young at or near the nest, by parents at the nest during incubation, brooding and feeding, and during the courtship flights.
EGGS: ovate, ground color varies from dark olive to light buff with markings of dark brown and gray. Markings vary from small dots and scrawls to very large blotches and are often particularly heavy around the larger end of the egg. The average dimensions for 122 eggs in the U.S. National Museum were 34 x 24 mm (Bent 1921).
Nests are typically located in shallow water, close to open water or openings in stands of emergent vegetation. Nests are placed on heaps of floating vegetation, on old muskrat house, old grebe or coot nest, or on floating wood (Novak 1990). Floating mats of muck or algae, mud flats, and mud mounds and islands also have been used. The nest consists of a small gathering of aquatic vegetation with a simple, cup-like bowl (Weller and Spatcher 1965, Bailey 1977).
The overall dark coloration, highly acrobatic flight, and petite size (9-10", wingspan 2 ft.) distinguish this bird from other gull and tern species.
Adults in breeding plumage.
Black Terns are gregarious throughout the year and are considered a semi-colonial nesting species (Cuthbert 1954, Bergman et al. 1970). Nests may be clumped closely in favorable habitat or more widely scattered in less favorable areas. As is typical of colonial nesting gulls and terns, Black Terns will join together to defend the nesting area from intruders (Cuthbert 1954). Breeding colonies commonly change their locations if conditions become unfavorable (i.e., slight water level changes). Return rates may vary considerably among specific sites. Stern et al. (1985) found that 67% of recaptured terns nested within the same primary wetlands, while Bailey (1977) and Dunn (1979) reported return rates of 40% and 27% for marshes in Wisconsin and Ontario, respectively. These return rates, which are low in comparison with other gulls and terns, may be the result of the relative instability of their preferred habitat (McNicholl 1975). Conspicuous aerial courtship displays characterize the courtship period, which begins soon after arrival at the breeding site. In the "high-flight", a group of 2-20 terns ascend together to a great height then split into smaller groups of two or three and descend in rapid glides (Baggerman et al. 1956). During the "fish-flight", a male tern carries a small fish or large insect in its bill and is closely followed by a female as the two fly about the marsh. At the close of this aerial display the male follows the female to a perch and feeds her (Baggerman et al. 1956). Similar to some other marsh-nesting birds (i.e., Pied-billed Grebes), brooding Black Terns appear to leave their nest at night, leaving the eggs totally abandoned (Faber and Elbert 1996), or else the males incubate while females and non-breeding males spend the night at communal roosts up to 2-3 km away (Custer and Custer 1996). Eggs in abandoned nests had high levels of Organochlorine contaminants in them suggesting this may have played a role in this behavior. Black Terns' overall low reproductive rate (< 1 chick fledged/pair), and low nest success rates (<50%) are often attributed to nest predation, but in some ways may be related to this nocturnal brooding behavior. In order to compensate for such low reproductive rates, Black Terns are relatively long-lived for a bird (~8 yr.) and adults have comparatively high annual survival rates (Dunn and Agro 1995).
On the breeding grounds Black Terns are primarily insectivorous, although small crustaceans, spiders and small fishes are also regular food items (Bent 1921). The diet may vary depending on habitat and food availability. Fishes may be an especially important food item especially in terms of biomass. Small fish appear to be critical for chick development since chicks cannot develop on insects alone and fish are a key source of calcium. In waters devoid of adequate fish prey calcium deficiency leads to malformation and death in chicks (Bientema 1997). In Maine, Gilbert and Servello (2005) found that chicks could develop normally on insects and/or fish alone, but that the availability and choice of food may affect adults more so than chicks. Because of their higher biomass and nutritional value, adults primarily feeding fish to chicks may have to spend less time and energy feeding the young with positive consequences for their own condition, survival, and future breeding success. The capability to use both fish and insects may reduce potential variability in food availability during the breeding season (Gilbert and Servello 2005). In wetlands, food is captured in the air, at or just below the water surface, and from the surface of emergent vegetation (Goodwin 1960). In the prairies, much of the food is obtained from plowed land and fields of grain but foraging over agricultural land near marshes has rarely been observed in New York (Novak 1992). In a sample of 376 feedings of young in different nests at North Pond in New York, Goodwin (1960) found that 41% of the items brought by parents were minnows and 59% were insects, including 45% damselflies. Insects comprised 93.6% of 602 feedings to chicks in Michigan while fishes accounted for just 4.9% (Cuthbert 1954). Although many of the insects could not be identified, damselflies, dragonflies, and mayflies were important food items. One study reported that 46 damselflies per hour were fed to chicks (Dunn and Agro 1995).
Black terns typically arrive from their South American wintering grounds in early May and begin actively searching for suitable nesting marshes. June is the prime nesting season, but nesting often extends into mid-July. Young of the year are in the air and feeding with adults in late July and August, and the birds begin departing by September. In the northeastern U.S., egg laying begins in late May, but may be initiated as late as the middle of July. Nests with eggs were observed at one site in western New York from 24 May to 12 July (Firstencel 1987). During a 1989 survey of colonies throughout New York, nests with eggs were observed as early as 25 May and as late as 18 July (Novak 1990). Black Terns are not known to be double brooded so later nests probably represent renesting attempts; and they can renest up to 40 km away (Muller and Roggie 2001).
Spring arrival seems to have advanced by about a month since the turn of the century. Eaton (1910) reported that Black Terns typically arrived around the first of June and nested in July.
The time of year you would expect to find Black Tern active and reproducing in New York.
Chlidonias niger (Linnaeus, 1758)
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Information for this guide was last updated on: June 29, 2019
Please cite this page as:
New York Natural Heritage Program. 2023. Online Conservation Guide for Chlidonias niger. Available from: https://guides.nynhp.org/black-tern/. Accessed May 29, 2023.