Least Tern

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Scientific Name: Ixobrychus exilis

Classification: Nongame-State listed as Special Concern

Abundance: Found along the coast (blue)


Species Profile



Least tern (Photo: Annika Andersson)
Least tern chick (Photo: Annika Andersson)
Least tern eggs (Photo: Annika Andersson)

Additional Information

The smallest of all the American tern species, the Least Tern can be found along American coasts and inland waterways. In North Carolina, they are found along much of the coast. The interior and Pacific populations of the Least Tern are classified as endangered, due in part to many threats they face when nesting. Least Terns prefer to nest on sandy beaches where they face the threat of predators such as feral and free ranging cats, dogs, coyotes, raccoons, ghost crabs, human impact, and changing environments such as flooding.

The least tern is between 8 to 9 inches in length and has a wingspan between 18 to 21 inches. They are predominantly white with grey backsides and black coloration leading toward the wing tips. The Least Tern has a breeding and nonbreeding plumage.  When breeding, Least Terns have a black cap that ends with a white forehead and a black stripe through the eye ending at the beak. Their beaks are yellow with a black tip.  When they are not breeding, they have a black eye stripe that goes toward the back of the head, the top of their head is white, and they have black bills. 

The least tern uses a variety of sites on which to nest – bare sand on barrier islands, sand-shell areas on dredged-material islands, gravel roofs, and even occasionally within infrequently-used gravel parking lots. Least terns have been documented nesting on the rooftop of Pine Knoll Shores Aquarium in Carteret County. Dubbed the Tern Turrett, the gravel rooftop has served as a tern nesting site for the 2017 and 2018 nesting seasons. Wildlife Commission staff, along with aquarium staff, are monitoring the chicks throughout the 2018 nesting season to collect data to determine how many pairs are nesting, how many nests have eggs/hatchlings and how many young terns fledge. 

Learn more about the least tern by reading our Least Tern Wildlife Profile.


The least tern is a nongame bird species with no open hunting season. The species is state listed as a Species of Special Concern. In North Carolina, a Species of Special Concern is defined as any species of wild animal native or once native to North Carolina that is determined by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission to require monitoring but that may be taken under regulations adopted under the provisions of Article 25.

Listed species cannot be collected or taken except under a special permit issued by the Wildlife Commission’s Executive Director.

Protected Wildlife Species of North Carolina listings (PDF)


There are no reported problems with this species.

NCWRC, along with nonprofit organizations and other federal and state agencies, is protecting Least Terns in North Carolina by managing protected lands to maintain sandy beach habitat, providing opportunities for people and birds to share our beaches by partnering with towns, counties, and private land owners, as well as working with businesses to create tern friendly rooftops. Signs are posted around colonies to alert humans to the presence of nesting birds. If you see signs on your next visit to your favorite beach, or while out on the water, marking a waterbird nesting area, please observe these amazing birds from a distance, they are working hard to raise their young.

How you can help least terns:

  • Keeping dogs on a leash at all times. Dogs may chase and harass birds, as well as trample nests, killing chicks or crushing eggs.
  • Driving only on the lower beach and driving slowly enough to avoid running over chicks.
  • Taking trash with them when leaving the beach, including bait and scraps from cleaned fish — all of which can attract predators, such as gulls, raccoons, feral cats and foxes.
  • Discarding fishing line or kite string in an appropriate receptacle. When left on the beach, these materials can entangle and kill birds and other wildlife.
  • Not feeding gulls on the beach. Gulls are a major predator of young chicks and eggs.