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Discover the Secret Life of Black-bellied Terns: Unraveling their Behaviors Migrations and Populations

The Black-bellied Tern (Sterna acuticauda) is a migratory bird species that belongs to the family Laridae. This stunning bird is small in size, with distinctive features that make it easy to identify.

Its plumage, molts, and field identification are all unique characteristics that bird enthusiasts can use to differentiate it from similar species.


Field Identification

The Black-bellied Tern is a small bird that measures around 25-30 cm in length and weighs about 88 grams. The bird has a black bill, dark eyes, and a black cap on the head.

Its back and wings are gray, while the underparts are white, except for the black belly, which gives the bird its name. The tail of these birds is deeply forked, which is a unique feature of the species.

Similar Species

There are several similar tern species that bird watchers may mistake for the Black-bellied Tern. These include the Swift Tern and the Damara Tern.

The Swift Tern is larger in size, with a white forehead and bill, while the Damara Tern has a different plumage coloration with a black cap and a white forehead.


Black-bellied Terns have three plumages: breeding, non-breeding, and juvenile. The breeding plumage is characterized by a black cap and nape and gray wings.

The rest of the body has a white coloration with a black belly. During the non-breeding season, the birds’ black cap and nape are replaced with a white one, and the head takes on a similar color to the upperparts.

Juvenile birds have a brown coloration and have a limited black belly.


Like most bird species, Black-bellied Terns undergo molts, which involve the shedding of old feathers and growth of new ones. These birds exhibit two primary molts: the prebasic molt and the prealternate molt.

The prebasic molt usually occurs after breeding season and involves the shedding of breeding plumage and growing in non-breeding plumage. The prealternate molt happens after the non-breeding season and brings back breeding plumage.


The Black-bellied Tern is a beautiful bird species that bird watchers and enthusiasts can easily spot and identify. Its unique characteristics, including its plumage and molts, make it stand out among other bird species.

It’s important to note that conservation efforts are necessary to protect these migratory birds and their habitats. As such, it’s crucial that all bird watchers adhere to ethical practices while observing these birds in their natural habitats.

Systematics History

The Black-bellied Tern (Sterna acuticauda) is a migratory bird species that belongs to the family Laridae. The taxonomy of the species has undergone various changes over the years, and new evidence from molecular, morphological, and behavioral studies has helped to clarify its systematic position and relationships with other species.

Geographic Variation

The Black-bellied Tern has a broad range in Africa, ranging from Morocco to South Africa, and also in parts of the Middle East, Central Asia and Southeast Asia. The bird’s geographic variation is mainly reflected in its plumage and size, with birds from the southern part of the range being generally smaller in size than those from the northern part.

There is also variation in the coloration of the bill, with some populations having blacker bills than others.


There are 3 recognized subspecies of Sterna acuticauda:

1. S.

a. acuticauda This subspecies is found in southern Asia, including India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam.

2. S.

a. longipennis This subspecies is found in Africa, from Mauritania to Somalia and south to South Africa.

3. S.

a. bethunei – This subspecies is found in Madagascar.

Related Species

There is some disagreement amongst experts about the Black-bellied Terns closest living relatives. Many agree that it is part of the Crested Tern group (Thalasseus) which includes the Sandwich Tern and Royal Tern.

Others debate that the black-bellied tern may be more closely related to a range of species including the elegant tern (Thalasseus elegans), river terns (Sterna aurantia) and South American terns (Sterna hirundinacea).

Historical Changes to Distribution

The Black-bellied Tern has undergone various changes in its distribution over the years. Historically, it was found in larger numbers along the African coast and inland waterbodies such as Lake Chad, Lake Victoria, and Lake Turkana.

However, due to human interference and destruction of natural habitats, populations of the bird have declined significantly, and it is now considered a threatened species in some parts of its range. Over the years, populations of the Black-bellied Tern have faced a variety of threats, including habitat modification, hunting, nest disturbance, and predation.

The birds need healthy breeding sites that are free of human disturbance, and they require access to offshore feeding grounds. The habitats in these sites can be degraded because these birds are also sensitive to the impacts of pollution, changes in water levels and changes in water chemistry.

Climate change remains a potential threat to this bird species due to how they rely on predictable patterns of rainfall to prosper. The decline of these populations has prompted a range of conservation efforts, such as protective legislation and the creation of protected areas for breeding sites.

The BirdLife International Conservation Program and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Centre for Biodiversity Conservation have played a significant role in supporting conservation efforts.


The Black-bellied Tern is a migratory bird species with a vast range and fascinating history. Its systematics have undergone multiple revisions, with molecular and behavioral evidence shedding light on its position within the Thalasseus and Sterna genera.

With a major focus on habitat restoration, educational campaigns and adoption of sustainable policies, there is a significant chance the Black-bellied Tern population can be preserved and allowed to thrive in its natural range in Africa, Asia, and Madagascar.


The Black-bellied Tern is a waterbird with a broad range in various habitats, mainly within the African continent and parts of the Middle East, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia. The species prefers habitats with shallow water bodies with adequate food supply, including coastal marshes, inland wetlands, and large freshwater lakes.

During the breeding season, the birds can become very territorial and can be observed nesting in large colonies in open grassy areas adjacent to shorelines. These areas can provide a mix of diverse aquatic vegetation and insects that make up the majority of its diet.

Movements and Migration

Black-bellied Terns are migratory, with populations of the species breeding in northern latitudes flying south to warmer climes during the winter. The northern breeders move towards their wintering sites in South Asia and Africa around October, while the southern breeders disperse from their breeding sites to the northern wintering areas.

The movements of these birds are usually triggered by changes in water levels and availability of food sources in response to the seasonal rains found in tropical Africa and Asia.

Breeding birds that normally occur in Eastern, Central and South Africa migrate in a westerly direction across the continent as far as the east coast of West Africa. Here, the birds usually remain throughout the southern African winter between March and August.

Unfortunately, with human presence increasingly encroaching inland, the habitats of these birds are being degraded and threatened by human activity. Changes to hydrological cycles by mining, damming, and other large-scale land use modifications have contributed significantly to the migration disruptions and decimations of populations.

Subsequently, Common or migratory birds are thought to be particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Already there have been reports of unusual migration patterns, concerning breeding and non-breeding habitat mismatches, which may cause the birds to arrive at their destination much later than usual, or not at all.

As weather patterns become more unpredictable with climate change, these birds will have to adapt in order to recover their lost ranges. Climate change also poses a significant threat to the Black-bellied Terns’ feeding sites.

As water in these areas become compromised by pollution, invasive species, there will be potential long-term impacts on breeding success that may lead to a population decline over time. To conserve the species and facilitate its migration, specific stopover sites need to be created where the birds can feed, rest, and refuel during their migration.

Monitoring of environmental factors such as water quality and availability, vegetation cover and system health may be the way forward to ensuring that these sites are habitable for the terns as they continue their travels.


The Black-bellied Tern is a migratory bird species with a fascinating life-travel pattern. Its populations disperse across continents in search of ideal habitats for feeding, breeding, and resting during their annual, season-based movements.

With adequate conservation efforts and policies to preserve and restore the habitats of the birds during these life stages, more can be done to protect the bird and its migratory path from potential changes. By studying the patterns of these birds, we can learn more about the impact of habitat loss and the effects of climate change on various species and their respective migratory patterns.

Diet and Foraging

Black-bellied Terns are mainly piscivorous. They feed on small fish, crustaceans, and insects that live in and near the water.

The birds hunt by plunging and diving from the air into shallow water to make a catch. They can be observed scanning bodies of water for prey, hovering a few meters above the water surface in search of potential prey items.


Black-bellied Terns are usually solitary in their feeding habits when looking for prey. Apart from diving, the birds employ a technique called plunge-diving, where they fly above the water, pause mid-flight, and then dive into the water from a considerable height.

This style of hunting is highly successful, and the terns are adept at making catches even at high speeds.


The diet of the Black-bellied Tern is mainly composed of small fish species, including tilapia, catfish, herring, and sardine-like species. Crustaceans and terrestrial insects are also supplementary to their diet, particularly during non-breeding seasons.

The bird hunts mostly inshore, preferring the upper layers of water columns, where fish appear to congregate.

Metabolism and Temperature Regulation

Black-bellied Terns’ flight requires a high level of energy demand, and the birds have evolved a specialized metabolism system to support energy production for long-tail flights. The birds have high metabolic rates that reflect their active prey catching method, which requires rapid movement and bursts of high energy expenditure.

To help regulate their body temperature, the Black-bellied Terns have developed a specialized bill structure. The species’ bills are thin, light, and narrow, which reduces heat loss during their fast-paced foraging activities over water bodies.

This design means the terns have developed the ability to regulate their body temperature when in flight under different weather conditions.

Sounds and Vocal



Black-bellied Terns have a limited vocal repertoire, with their calls usually being short, sharp, and piercing. The birds vocalize in various situations, including during courtship, courtship feeding, nest building, and hatching.

Their calls consist of a variety of harsh, descending, or ascending notes that vary in frequency, tone, volume, and pitch according to the bird’s circumstances at the time. During the breeding season, males and females use a series of calls to communicate and attract each other.

Males produce a series of distinctive raucous calls, while females produce softer, less distinct calls. The calls then evolve and get more elaborate as the birds establish a bond, and they begin to build their breeding nest.

Good quality recordings of these calls are scarce, but they can be used to identify breeding sites, monitor population densities, or simply enjoy the beauty of the birdsong.


Black-bellied Terns are fascinating bird species that have developed specialized adaptations in their foraging behaviors and vocalizations. Their ability to dive from the air and catch prey with great precision in and around water bodies is testament to their evolutionary traits.

Alongside specialized vocalizations, temperature regulation, metabolism, and foraging behaviors, Black-bellied Terns continually offer excellent research and bird-watching opportunities across their vast range. These studies aid conservation efforts, boost knowledge of the species, and ultimately help conserve and protect the Black-bellied Tern from habitat degradation and loss.


The Black-bellied Tern is a species of bird that exhibits a variety of behaviors that are important to its survival, such as locomotion, self-maintenance, agonistic behavior, and sexual behavior.


Black-bellied Terns use several modes of locomotion to fly, swim, and dive. Their wings are long and pointed, which enables them to fly at high speeds for long distances.

The species is also an adept swimmer, particularly when hunting, and displays robust diving capabilities with acrobatic manoeuvres to catch prey.

Self Maintenance

Black-bellied Terns spend a considerable amount of time preening, a behavior that plays a critical role in maintaining their feathers in good condition. During preening, the bird uses its bill to clean, oil, and align its feathers correctly.

This behavior removes any dirt or debris that may impair the bird’s flight and keeps the feathers in excellent shape for maximum aerodynamic performance. Agonistic


Black-bellied Terns are highly territorial and can become very aggressive when protecting their nesting site.

The birds engage in a variety of agonistic behaviors, such as vocalizations, chasing, and physical confrontations with conspecific intruders who attempt to invade their breeding sites. Sexual


During the breeding season, Black-bellied Terns engage in a variety of sexual behaviors such as courtship feeding where, the dominant male brings food to the female to entice her to form a bond.

The bond forms when the female accepts the offering and the pair starts mating. Bonded pairs work together to construct the nest which could be in shallow, grassy sites near water bodies or inland areas allowing them to hunt and make deliveries to the nest.


The Black-bellied Tern, as mentioned above, is a colonial breeder and may have thousands of breeding pairs in densely packed colonies. These colonies can be found on the ground in grassy areas between shallow water bodies.

Nesting can occur year-round, although is usually more prominent during the wet season when water levels are high enough to increase success rates of nesting offspring.

Breeding activities are shared between pairs, with the female laying 1-3 eggs per clutch, which are then incubated by both parents for an average of 23-25 days. After hatching, chicks are developed in stages of plumage patterns and are estimated to fledge in approximately 28-35 days from hatching.

Parents will continue to feed their young sporadically for around 20 days after fledging to ensure they are capable and independent enough to hunt and feed themselves. Once the young are self-sufficient, the parental activity ceases until nest preparation the following breeding season.

Demography and Populations

The Black-bellied Tern is a species of bird that has experienced changes in populations as a result of habitat loss and degradation mostly due to human impact and climate change. The species remains widespread across much of its historical range, but the populations have declined within areas of high human population density.

Black-bellied Tern plays a keystone role in wetland habitats, and the loss of these habitats can have severe consequences to their populations.

The species’ overall population is classified as “Least Concern,” but some populations in certain countries have decreased in number, and several subspecies, as mentioned earlier have reduced significantly or are considered vulnerable by the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Long-term monitoring and research of breeding sites, migration routes, food choices, water quality, and movements are essential to informing conservation policies and reducing further population declination at the local scale.


Black-bellied Terns are fascinating bird species that exhibit a wide range of behaviors that are pertinent to their life cycle, migration and population density. Their population suffers from human-induced pressures such as habitat degradation and loss, creating detrimental effects that harm the species.

Constant monitoring and additional research can help inform policies that protect the species and preserve the habitats on which they rely for food, shelter, and breeding sites. By protecting these magnificent birds, we can ensure that populations remain stabilized, adequately supported, and successfully promote their range to the delight of birders and researchers alike.

In conclusion, our article has explored the Black-bellied Tern in remarkable breadth. The bird species exhibits adaptations, behaviors and migratory patterns that are incredibly unique and picturesque.

Their significance dwells in their primary role in the ecosystem as a keystone species and an indicator of wetland health. The article has highlighted how human activities, urbanizations, and climate change have impacted the species and their habitats causing population disturbance.

At present, the birds remain mostly classified as Least Concern, but require continuous monitoring and additional research to create policies that protect the species, and preserve the habitats on which they

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