Common Tern Life Cycle

Common Tern Life Cycle: Nest Building To Fledging (and everything in between)

The Common Tern (Sterna hirundo) is a graceful seabird found along the coasts and inland waterways of the UK. 

Known for its distinctive forked tail and elegant flight, this medium-sized tern plays a crucial role in our coastal ecosystems! Let’s have a closer look into a Common Tern’s life, from nest building to fledging.

How Long Does A Common Tern Live?

Common terns typically live for around 10 to 20 years in the wild. The oldest recorded Common Tern reached an impressive 33 years of age! 

Female Common Tern

Their relatively long lifespan allows these birds to contribute significantly to their breeding colonies over many seasons.

How Fast Can A Common Tern Fly?

Common Terns are agile and swift flyers, capable of reaching speeds up to 20 to 25 miles per hour. Their agility and speed are crucial for catching fish, their primary food source, and evading predators. 

These birds are known for their impressive long-distance migrations, travelling thousands of miles between their breeding and wintering grounds.

Their streamlined bodies and long, narrow wings enable them to navigate effortlessly through the air, whether they’re migrating long distances or diving for fish in coastal waters.

Are Common Terns Aggressive?

Common terns can exhibit aggressive behaviour, particularly during the breeding season. 

They are highly protective of their nests and will vigorously defend them against potential threats, including other birds and humans. This aggression is primarily driven by the need to protect their eggs and chicks.

Despite their small size, common terns can be quite formidable when defending their territory. They use a combination of vocalisations, dive-bombing, and physical attacks to ward off intruders. Outside the breeding season, however, they are generally more tolerant and less aggressive.

What Is A Common Tern’s Habitat?

Common terns inhabit a variety of coastal and inland environments. They prefer areas near water, such as beaches and lakeshores, where they can easily access fish and other aquatic prey. 

Nestling Common Tern

During the breeding season, they form colonies on sandy or gravelly islands, often sharing space with other seabirds.

These birds are highly adaptable and can be found across Europe, North America, and parts of Asia. 

In the UK, common terns are commonly seen along the coasts and large inland water bodies, where they take advantage of abundant food resources and suitable nesting sites.

How Long Does It Take For A Common Tern To Build A Nest?

A common tern’s nest is a simple scrape in the ground, often lined with small stones, shells, and vegetation to provide some insulation and camouflage. 

Because it’s a simple scrape nest, they can often build them in just a few days, typically 1 – 3 days.

Both the male and female participate in nest building, which strengthens their pair bond.


The egg-laying phase is a crucial part of the Common Tern’s breeding cycle. Let’s have a closer look into the details of this stage:

When Do Common Terns Lay Eggs?

Common terns lay eggs between May and June, depending on the local climate and environmental conditions. 

The timing ensures that the chicks hatch during a period of abundant food availability, which is critical for their survival and growth.

How Many Eggs Does A Common Tern Lay?

A common tern typically lays two to three eggs per breeding season. This relatively small clutch size allows the parents to devote adequate care and resources to each chick, increasing their chances of survival.

What Do Common Tern Eggs Look Like?

Common Tern eggs are approximately 41 mm long and 30 mm wide. They have a pale buff to olive-brown base colour with dark brown or black speckles and blotches. 

This mottled appearance provides excellent camouflage against the surrounding pebbles and sand.

How Long Do Common Tern Eggs Take To Hatch?

Common tern eggs take about 21 to 27 days to hatch. During this incubation period, both parents take turns keeping the eggs warm and protected. 

This shared responsibility ensures that the eggs are rarely left unattended.


Once the eggs hatch, the Common Tern chicks begin their journey towards independence. Here’s what you need to know about this stage:

How Many Chicks Does A Common Tern Have?

A Common Tern pair usually raises 1 to 3 chicks per breeding season, corresponding to the number of eggs laid. 

However, not all eggs may hatch successfully, and some chicks may not survive to fledging due to predation or environmental factors.

When Do Common Tern Chicks Open Their Eyes?

Common Tern chicks are precocial, meaning they hatch with their eyes open and are relatively well-developed. 

This adaptation allows them to be alert to potential dangers from the moment they emerge from their eggs!

When Do Common Tern Chicks Fledge?

Common Tern chicks typically fledge at around 21 to 28 days after hatching. 

However, they may continue to be fed by their parents for several weeks after fledging as they perfect their flying and fishing skills.

SEE ALSO: Arctic Tern Diet and Size: Feeding Habits, Predators, and Measurements

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the lifespan of a Common Tern?

Common Terns typically live for 10 to 20 years in the wild. The oldest common tern recorded reached 33 years of age!

What colour are Common Tern eggs?

Common tern eggs are pale buff or olive with dark brown or black speckles, providing effective camouflage against their nesting environment.

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