Nature Bulletin No. 688 October 6, 1962
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roberts Mann, Conservation Editor
Since prehistoric times, many kinds of water birds have been
congregating in vast colonies to nest and rear their young. Some
continue to do so on remote coasts, lonely islands, and sequestered
refuges. Until the enactment of a federal law in 1913, supported by
treaties with Canada and Mexico, they were not protected.
that time a few species had become extinct and others, such as the
Royal and Gull-billed terns, almost wiped out by periodic raids for the
eggs on their nesting colonies. Several species -- notably the egrets and
the Roseate, the Least and the Common terns -- slaughtered during
nesting seasons to supply the millinery trade with their beautiful
plumage, had also been nearly exterminated.
In the latter part of the 19th century and the first decade of this one,
women wore big hats adorned with furbelows and feathers. Egret
plumes, the wings and breasts of terns, and elegant little birds such as
the Least Tern -- stuffed and mounted in jaunty poses -- were in great
demand. Public opinion aroused by Audubon societies, and the
Plumage Act ended that and saved them.
Many people confuse terns with gulls but, although closely related, they
have noticeable differences. Most terns are slim and stream-lined. They
are often called "sea swallows" because of their long narrow wings,
long forked tails and swift graceful flight. Excepting the chunky
gull-billed tern, they have long tapering bills and fly with them pointing
downward; whereas a gull' s bill is shorter, hooked at the tip, and in line
with the body when flying.
Gulls are more heavily built, with broader wings and square or rounded
tails. Both terns and gulls have webbed feet, swim easily, and gulls
commonly alight on water to feed or rest. Gulls are valuable as
scavengers. Terns prefer live food and seldom aligm on water but
plunge headlong into it to capture prey beneath the surface. On the
coast of Maine we saw a fishing vessel put out nets and fill her holds
with tons of fish where thousands of terns were circling, shrieking and
diving into a dense mass of herring driven to the surface by a hungry
school of bluefish.
There are about 50 species of terns and nearly all are seabirds but four
of them are common in the interior of North America, either as migrants
or as nesting birds. The Black Tern is most numerous. It is about 9-1/2
inches long, with a 20-inch wingspread -- slightly larger than a least
tern. Its tail is shorter than those of most terns and notched instead of
forked. In summer, the upper parts are slate gray but the head, neck and
body are black.
At McGinnis Slough and similar areas in the forest preserves it is
interesting to watch them zigzag swiftly over the water, capturing
insects on the wing, or hovering above shallow places in search of
minnows, tadpoles and crayfish. They nest on old muskrat lodges or
floating piles of vegetation and lay three eggs heavily marked with dark
brown spots and blotches .
Tern, common as a migrant, occasionally nests on sloughs in
this region. About 15 inches in length, it has a long forked tail, pure
white under parts and wings, black ear patches on its white head, and an
orange bill. The Common Tern, very similar, rarely nests here but is
frequently seen during migrations. The Caspian Tern which, like the
black, common and least terns, breeds around the world in the northern
hemisphere, occasionally stops here when migrating. It is heavy, broad-
winged, with a black head, and the largest of this tribe -- 21 inches long,
with a 53-inch wingspread.
The Sooty and the Noddy Terns inhabit tropical islands such as the Dry
Tortugas west of Key West. The Arctic Tern, abundant in the far north,
is famous because some of them migrate to and from the Antarctic -- a
round-trip flight of 22,000 miles.
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Update: June 2012