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Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center

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Forest and Rangeland Birds of the United States

Natural History and Habitat Use

Black Tern -- Chlidonias niger

RANGE: Breeds from southwestern and east-central British Columbia and south-central Mackenzie to southern Quebec and southern New Brunswick, south locally to south-central California and northern Utah, across to Nebraska, south-central Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Maine. Nonbreeding birds occur in summer south on the Pacific Coast to Panama, and in eastern North America to the Gulf Coast. Winters in South America.

STATUS: Common; overall population is stable or decreasing slightly.

HABITAT: Found in taiga and on the plains and prairies, where it inhabits shallow marshes, open areas of deeper marshes, reed-bordered sloughs, natural ponds, lakes, fish and stock ponds, shallow river impoundments, wet meadows, river oxbows, ditches, edges of streams, and swampy grasslands. In migration, frequents freshwater and saltwater, occurring along the coast and along marshes, rivers, lakes and nearby cultivated fields.

SPECIAL HABITAT REQUIREMENTS: Aquatic habitats with extensive stands of emergent vegetation and large areas of open water.

NEST: Often nests in small colonies, but occasionally nests singly. Usually places nest on a floating mass of vegetation such as cattails and bulrushes and anchored to surrounding vegetation, on floating pieces of wood, or in a slight hollow atop a muskrat house. Prefers areas of emergent vegetation over water up to 3 feet deep or near open water. Sometimes uses abandoned nests of other birds including grebes, Forster's terns, and American coots.

FOOD: Does not compete strongly with fish-eating species; consumes a diet that includes aquatic and land insects, worms, small mollusks, crustaceans, and a few small fishes and grubs.

REFERENCES: Clapp et al. 1983, Forbush and May 1955, Johnsgard 1979, Low and Mansell 1983, McNicholl 1971, Tate and Tate 1982.

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