White tern – Wikipedia

Species of bird

The white tern or common white tern (Gygis alba) is a small seabird found across the tropical oceans of the world.[2] It is sometimes known as the fairy tern although this name is potentially confusing as it is also the common name of Sternula nereis. Other names for the species include angel tern and white noddy in English, and manu-o-Kū in Hawaiian. The little white tern (Gygis microrhyncha), previously considered a subspecies of the white tern (Gygis alba microrhyncha), is now recognised as a separate species.[3]


The white tern was first formally described by the Swedish naturalist Anders Sparrman in 1786 under the binomial name Sterna alba.[4] The genus Gygis was introduced by the German zoologist Johann Georg Wagler in 1832.[5] The name Gygis is from the Ancient Greek guges for a mythical bird and the specific alba is Latin for “white”.[6]

Molecular phylogenetic studies have shown that the white tern is more closely related to the noddies than it is to the other terns.[7] This implies that “white noddy” would be a more appropriate English name.[8]

The white tern has the following recognized subspecies:

Some authors have postulated that there may be three species of Gygis: Gygis alba, in the Atlantic Ocean, and Gygis candida and Gygis microrhyncha, both in the Pacific.[12]


The white tern has a wingspan of 76–87 cm (30–34 in).[13] It has white plumage and a long black bill.[14] Nesting on coral islands, usually on trees with small branches but also on rocky ledges and on man-made structures, the white tern feeds on small fish which it catches by plunge diving. Giant tortoises have been observed to hunt the bird on Fregate Island in the Seychelles.[15]

Distribution and habitat[edit]

The white tern ranges widely across the Pacific Ocean from the coasts of Chile and Colombia to New Zealand and along the eastern and southern coasts of Asia from China to India, South Maldives, the islands of the Indian Ocean, and the coast of South Africa.[1] Rarely it is also found in Japan, Madagascar, Mexico, and on some islands in the Atlantic Ocean. It is a pelagic and epipelagic bird, living along the coast and moving into wooded areas during the breeding season.


This species is notable for laying its egg on bare thin branches in a small fork or depression without a nest. This behaviour is unusual for terns, which generally nest on the ground, and even the related tree-nesting black noddy constructs a nest. It is thought that the reason for the absence of nests is the reduction in nest parasites, which in some colonial seabirds can cause the abandonment of an entire colony.[16] In spite of these benefits there are costs associated with tree nesting, as the eggs and chicks are vulnerable to becoming dislodged by heavy winds. For this reason the white tern is also quick to relay should it lose the egg. The newly hatched chicks have well developed feet with which to hang on to their precarious nesting site. It is a long-lived bird, having been recorded living for 42[17] years.

Relationship with humans[edit]

This is one of the most useful of all the landfinding birds used by Pacific navigators. They generally roam no more than 45 km from their home island, to which they usually return at nightfall. Polynesians also caught these birds for food or to keep as pets.[18]

The white tern, manu-o-Kū, was named Honolulu, Hawaiʻi’s official bird on April 2, 2007.

New Zealand’s Department of Conservation classifies the white tern as Nationally Critical, with populations having been largely decimated by the introduction of feral cats and rats on Raoul Island, the terns’ only breeding site in the country.[19] As of 2016, the white tern population in New Zealand was reported to be increasing following the eradication of introduced predators in 2002.[19][20] Globally, the white tern has a large range that is home to several large colonies, and both recognised species are listed as Least Concern by the IUCN Red List.


  1. ^ a b BirdLife International (2018). Gygis alba. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2018: e.T22694821A132576063. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2018-2.RLTS.T22694821A132576063.en. Retrieved 12 November 2021.
  2. ^ “Common White Tern (Gygis alba) – BirdLife species factsheet”. datazone.birdlife.org. Retrieved 2021-05-04.
  3. ^ del Hoyo, J; Collar, N.J.; Christie, D.A.; Elliott, A.; Fishpool, L.D.C. (2014). HBW and BirdLife International Illustrated Checklist of the Birds of the World. Volume 1: Non-passerines. Barcelona, Spain and Cambridge, UK.: Lynx Edicions BirdLife International.
  4. ^ Sparrman, Anders (1786–1789). Museum Carlsonianum, in quo novas et selectas aves, coloribus ad vivum brevique descriptiones illustratas (in Latin). Vol. fasc. 1. Holmiae: Ex Typographia Regia. Plate 11.
  5. ^ Wagler, Johann Georg (1832). “Neue Cippen und Gattugen der Caugthiere und Vögel”. Isis von Oken (in German and Latin). Column 1223.
  6. ^ Jobling, James A. (2010). The Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names. London: Christopher Helm. pp. 37, 182. ISBN 978-1-4081-2501-4.
  7. ^ Baker, A.J.; Pereira, S.L.; Paton, T.A. (2007). “Phylogenetic relationships and divergence times of Charadriiformes genera: multigene evidence for the Cretaceous origin of at least 14 clades of shorebirds”. Biology Letters. 3 (2): 205–209. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2006.0606. PMC 2375939. PMID 17284401. Baker, Allan J; Pereira, Sérgio L; Paton, Tara A (2008). “Erratum: Phylogenetic relationships and divergence times of Charadriiformes genera: multigene evidence for the Cretaceous origin of at least 14 clades of shorebirds”. Biology Letters. 4: 762–763. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2006.0606erratum.
  8. ^ Gill, Frank; Donsker, David, eds. (2019). “Noddies, gulls, terns, auks”. World Bird List Version 9.2. International Ornithologists’ Union. Retrieved 24 June 2019.
  9. ^ “Gygis alba alba (Common White-Tern (Atlantic)) – Avibase”. avibase.bsc-eoc.org. Retrieved 2021-05-04.
  10. ^ “Gygis alba candida (Common White-Tern (Pacific)) – Avibase”. avibase.bsc-eoc.org. Retrieved 2021-05-04.
  11. ^ “Gygis alba leucopes (Common White-Tern (leucopes)) – Avibase”. avibase.bsc-eoc.org. Retrieved 2021-05-04.
  12. ^ Pratt, H. Douglas (22 June 2020). “Species limits and English names in the genus Gygis (Laridae)”. Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club. 140 (2): 195–208. doi:10.25226/bboc.v140i2.2020.a10.
  13. ^ Gochfeld, M.; Burger, J.; Christie, D.A.; Kirwan, G.M. “Common White Tern (Gygis alba)”. In del Hoyo, J.; Elliott, A.; Sargatal, J.; Christie, D.A.; de Juana, E. (eds.). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions. Retrieved 16 April 2017.
  14. ^ Niethammer, K. R., and L. B. Patrick-Castilaw. 1998. White Tern (Gygis alba). in The Birds of North America, No. 371 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA. doi:10.2173/bna.371
  15. ^ Zora, Anna; Gerlach, Justin (2021-08-23). “Giant tortoises hunt and consume birds”. Current Biology. 31 (16): R989–R990. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2021.06.088. ISSN 0960-9822. PMID 34428417.
  16. ^ Houston, D.C. (1978). “Why do fairy terns Gygis alba not build nests?”. Ibis. 121 (1): 102–104. doi:10.1111/j.1474-919X.1979.tb05023.x.
  17. ^ Hawaii’s Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy
    October 1, 2005
  18. ^ Crowe, Andrew (2018). Pathway of the Birds: The Voyaging Achievements of Māori and their Polynesian Ancestors. Auckland: David Bateman Ltd. p. 93.
  19. ^ a b Island invasives : eradication and management : proceedings of the International Conference on Island Invasives. C. R. Veitch, Michael N. Clout, D. R. Towns, International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. Species Survival Commission, Centre for Biodiversity & Biosecurity. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN. 2011. ISBN 978-2-8317-1291-8. OCLC 770307954.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  20. ^ Robertson, Hugh A. (2017). Conservation status of New Zealand birds, 2016. Karen Baird, J. E. Dowding, Graeme Elliott, Rod Hitchmough, Colin Miskelly, Nikki McArthur. Wellington, New Zealand. ISBN 978-1-988514-23-9. OCLC 993614035.

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