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Montana Animal Field Guide

Montana Field Guides

Black Tern - Chlidonias niger

Species of Concern

Global Rank: G4
State Rank: S3B
* (see State Rank Reason below)

Agency Status
PIF: 2


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Copyright by Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics, Department of Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, all rights reserved.
State Rank Reason (see State Rank above)
Species has a small breeding population size and negative short-term population trends.
  • Details on Status Ranking and Review
    Black Tern (Chlidonias niger) Conservation Status Review
    Review Date = 12/19/2011
    View State Conservation Rank Criteria
    Population Size

    ScoreC - 250-1,000 individuals

    Comment95 pairs documented in 2009 and 73 pairs documented in 2010 without all potential suitable nesting habitat being surveyed in either year puts total number of breeding individuals in the 250 to 1,000 individual population size class.

    Range Extent

    ScoreG - 200,000-2,500,000 km squared (about 80,000-1,000,000 square miles)

    Comment380,531 square kilometers based on Natural Heritage Program range maps that appear on the Montana Field Guide

    Area of Occupancy

    ScoreE - 100-500 km squared (about 25,000-125,000 acres)

    Comment326 square kilometers based on Species Occurrence polygons with known breeding activity in the Heritage Program database.

    Long-term Trend

    ScoreE - Relatively Stable (±25% change)

    CommentWetland habitats within the range of the species in Montana are within +/- 25% of pre European levels.

    Short-term Trend

    ScoreD - Declining. Decline of 10-30% in population, range, area occupied, and/or number or condition of occurrences

    CommentBBS data for Montana is of low credibility at -2.3% per year or -26% per decade. BBS trend data of moderate credibility across Northern Rockies show an insignificant decline of -2.2% per year over last 10 years. Prairie Potholes shows a significant -3.8% decline per year over past ten years.


    ScoreF - Widespread, low-severity threat. Threat is of low severity but affects (or would affect) most or a significant portion of the population or area.

    CommentAltered hydrology, nest site disturbance, and climate change related drought all represent threats to Montana populations.

    SeverityLow - Low but nontrivial reduction of species population or reversible degradation or reduction of habitat in area affected, with recovery expected in 10-50 years.

    CommentIf water levels are maintained then species should recover or remain stable relatively quickly, certainly within 10-50 years.

    ScopeModerate - 20-60% of total population or area affected

    Comment20-60% of wetland breeding habitats likely to be affected by ongoing drought and climate change.

    ImmediacyModerate - Threat is likely to be operational within 2-5 years.


    Intrinsic Vulnerability

    ScoreB - Moderately Vulnerable. Species exhibits moderate age of maturity, frequency of reproduction, and/or fecundity such that populations generally tend to recover from decreases in abundance over a period of several years (on the order of 5-20 years or 2-5 generations); or species has moderate dispersal capability such that extirpated populations generally become reestablished through natural recolonization (unaided by humans).


    Environmental Specificity

    ScoreB - Narrow. Specialist. Specific habitat(s) or other abiotic and/or biotic factors (see above) are used or required by the Element, but these key requirements are common and within the generalized range of the species within the area of interest.

    CommentNarrow Specialist. Species is dependent on large or small wetland complexes with floating vegetation for nesting.

    Raw Conservation Status Score

    Score 3.5 – 0.5 (population size) + 0.0 (Geographic Distribution) - 0.25 (short-term trends) + 0.0 (threats) = 2.75
    How Scores are Calculated

General Description
The head and body of breeding Black Terns are black, fading to gray on the rump. The undertail coverts are white. The upper surface of the wings and tail are dark gray, and the wing linings are pale gray. The leading margin of the wing from the body to the first digit is white. The bill is black and the feet are a dark reddish-purple (Goodwin 1960, Farrand 1983). Females are somewhat duller black than males, but this difference is often difficult to distinguish in the field (Goodwin 1960). Black Terns begin their prebasic (postbreeding) molt in late June when eggs begin to hatch. White feathers appear first around the eyes and cheeks, then on the forehead, neck, throat and breast, and finally on the abdomen. Heavily molting adults take on a peculiar, piebald appearance. The prebasic molt is completed during fall migration (Goodwin 1960). In basic (winter) plumage, the underparts are pure white except for a small, dark patch on each side of the breast. The back becomes a shade of gray similar to the wings and tail. A blackish cap joins black ear coverts on the otherwise white head (Goodwin 1960, Farrand 1983). The juvenile plumage is similar to the basic plumage, but the feathers of the back are darker and the wing coverts and cap are barred and scalloped brown (Goodwin 1960, Farrand 1983). The total length of adults is 23 to 26.5 cm (9 to 10.5 inches).

Vocalizations include shrill, somewhat metallic alarm notes, described as "kik" or "keek", depending upon intensity and level of motivation, and a complex of contact calls described as "kyew", followed by one to four additional syllables, as "kyew-dik", "kyew-dik-ik", etc. (Goodwin 1960). The "kik" call commonly serves as a signal of impending danger in the nesting area. It may also be given during the ascent portion of the courtship flight. The "keek" call is similar to, but more shrill and forceful than, the "kik" call, and is given during aggressive attacks on enemies in close proximity to the nest. The frequency of repetition increases as they become more aggressive. The "kyew" calls are given as parents approach and leave the nest, during foraging flights, by adults accompanied in flight by young, by parents calling to young at or near the nest, by parents at the nest during incubation, brooding and feeding, and during the courtship flights (Goodwin 1960).

Black Tern eggs are ovate with a tendency toward ovate-pyriform (Bent 1921). Ground color varies from dark olive to light buff with markings of dark brown and gray. Markings vary from small dots and scrawls to very large blotches and are often particularly heavy around the larger end of the egg (Goodwin 1960). The average dimensions for 122 eggs in the U.S. National Museum were 34 x 24 mm (Bent 1921).

For a comprehensive review of the conservation status, habitat use, and ecology of this and other Montana bird species, please see Marks et al. 2016, Birds of Montana.

Diagnostic Characteristics
The distinctive black head and underbody, with gray wings, back, and tail easily distinguishes this species from any other tern species. Their size is also a key to recognition. They are very small compared to other tern species in the state. Only the Interior Least Tern (Sterna antillarum athalassos) is of similar size. Color will preclude any misidentification between these two species.

Species Range
Montana Range

Click the legend blocks above to view individual ranges.

Western Hemisphere Range


Summary of Observations Submitted for Montana
Number of Observations: 660

(Click on the following maps and charts to see full sized version) Map Help and Descriptions
Relative Density


(direct evidence "B")

(indirect evidence "b")

No evidence of Breeding
(transient "t")

(regular observations "W")

(at least one obs. "w")


(Observations spanning multiple months or years are excluded from time charts)

Little information is known about Black Tern migratory patterns in Montana. They are more likely to move north from wintering locations through the interior of the U.S. (Heath et al. 2009), so early sightings should occur in southern portions of the state. Migrating Black Terns have been observed just north of Dillon as early as April. However, the majority of spring migration observations have been in May and June. Black Terns have been observed in transit in July and August albeit fewer observations, probably due to peak breeding. The latest recorded observation was in September near Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Sheridan County (Montana Bird Distribution Committee 2012). Migration in fall is less concentrated through the interior of the country as birds also move to coastal areas (Heath et al. 2009).

Black Tern breeding habitat in Montana is mostly wetlands, marshes, prairie potholes, and small ponds. However, several locations are on man-made islands or islands in man-made reservoirs. Across all Montana sites where Black Terns are present, approximately 30%-50% of the wetland complex is emergent vegetation. Vegetation within known breeding colonies includes alkali bulrushes, canary reed-grass, cattail spp., sedge spp., rush spp., reed spp., grass spp., Polygonum spp., Juncus spp. and Potamogeton spp., indicating a wide variety of potential habitats are usable by Black Terns. Water levels in known breeding localities range from about 0.5 m to greater than 2.0 m with most having depths between 0.5 m and 1.0 m (Montana Natural Heritage Program Point Observation Database).

Ecological Systems Associated with this Species
  • Details on Creation and Suggested Uses and Limitations
    How Associations Were Made
    We associated the use and habitat quality (common or occasional) of each of the 82 ecological systems mapped in Montana for vertebrate animal species that regularly breed, overwinter, or migrate through the state by:
    1. Using personal observations and reviewing literature that summarize the breeding, overwintering, or migratory habitat requirements of each species (Dobkin 1992, Hart et al. 1998, Hutto and Young 1999, Maxell 2000, Foresman 2012, Adams 2003, and Werner et al. 2004);
    2. Evaluating structural characteristics and distribution of each ecological system relative to the species' range and habitat requirements;
    3. Examining the observation records for each species in the state-wide point observation database associated with each ecological system;
    4. Calculating the percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system to get a measure of "observations versus availability of habitat".
    Species that breed in Montana were only evaluated for breeding habitat use, species that only overwinter in Montana were only evaluated for overwintering habitat use, and species that only migrate through Montana were only evaluated for migratory habitat use.  In general, species were listed as associated with an ecological system if structural characteristics of used habitat documented in the literature were present in the ecological system or large numbers of point observations were associated with the ecological system.  However, species were not listed as associated with an ecological system if there was no support in the literature for use of structural characteristics in an ecological system, even if point observations were associated with that system.  Common versus occasional association with an ecological system was assigned based on the degree to which the structural characteristics of an ecological system matched the preferred structural habitat characteristics for each species as represented in scientific literature.  The percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system was also used to guide assignment of common versus occasional association.  If you have any questions or comments on species associations with ecological systems, please contact the Montana Natural Heritage Program's Senior Zoologist.

    Suggested Uses and Limitations
    Species associations with ecological systems should be used to generate potential lists of species that may occupy broader landscapes for the purposes of landscape-level planning.  These potential lists of species should not be used in place of documented occurrences of species (this information can be requested at: or systematic surveys for species and evaluations of habitat at a local site level by trained biologists.  Users of this information should be aware that the land cover data used to generate species associations is based on imagery from the late 1990s and early 2000s and was only intended to be used at broader landscape scales.  Land cover mapping accuracy is particularly problematic when the systems occur as small patches or where the land cover types have been altered over the past decade.  Thus, particular caution should be used when using the associations in assessments of smaller areas (e.g., evaluations of public land survey sections).  Finally, although a species may be associated with a particular ecological system within its known geographic range, portions of that ecological system may occur outside of the species' known geographic range.

    Literature Cited
    • Adams, R.A.  2003.  Bats of the Rocky Mountain West; natural history, ecology, and conservation.  Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado.  289 p.
    • Dobkin, D. S.  1992.  Neotropical migrant land birds in the Northern Rockies and Great Plains. USDA Forest Service, Northern Region. Publication No. R1-93-34.  Missoula, MT.
    • Foresman, K.R.  2012.  Mammals of Montana.  Second edition.  Mountain Press Publishing, Missoula, Montana.  429 pp.
    • Hart, M.M., W.A. Williams, P.C. Thornton, K.P. McLaughlin, C.M. Tobalske, B.A. Maxell, D.P. Hendricks, C.R. Peterson, and R.L. Redmond. 1998.  Montana atlas of terrestrial vertebrates.  Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, University of Montana, Missoula, MT.  1302 p.
    • Hutto, R.L. and J.S. Young.  1999.  Habitat relationships of landbirds in the Northern Region, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station RMRS-GTR-32.  72 p.
    • Maxell, B.A.  2000.  Management of Montana's amphibians: a review of factors that may present a risk to population viability and accounts on the identification, distribution, taxonomy, habitat use, natural history, and the status and conservation of individual species.  Report to U.S. Forest Service Region 1.  Missoula, MT: Wildlife Biology Program, University of Montana.  161 p.
    • Werner, J.K., B.A. Maxell, P. Hendricks, and D. Flath.  2004.  Amphibians and reptiles of Montana.  Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Company. 262 p.

Food Habits
During breeding season, insects and freshwater fish; rest of year diet consists mainly small marine fish and insects.

Highly social species that nests semicolonially and often forages in flocks (Heath et al. 2009).

Reproductive Characteristics
Overall, little information about Black Tern reproduction is known for Montana, as very few studies concerning the species exist. Recent work has focused on location surveys and general population size (Feighley 1998, Rauscher 2000). DuBois (1996) did nesting surveys for Black Terns at a single location in the state (Freezout Lake). In Montana, Black Terns usually begin their reproductive cycle in early to mid-June. However, in 1991 five documented observations of nesting occurred in May (Montana Bird Distribution Committee 2012). DuBois (1996) recorded egg-laying as early as June 2nd.

Black Terns are considered a single brood species and egg-laying late in the season is thought to be a renesting attempt after an initial nest failure. Egg-laying has been recorded in Montana as late as June 27th (DuBois 1996). The average Black Tern clutch size is 2.6. A three-egg clutch is very common, although clutches from 1 to 6 eggs are possible (Heath et al. 2009). DuBois (1996) found the average clutch size to be 2.74 among 19 nests at Freezout Lake Wildlife Management Area. Hatching is thought to occur approximately 20 days after egg-laying with an asynchronous hatch sequence (Goodwin 1960). The earliest hatch date in Montana is June 22nd (DuBois 1996). Young are mobile within days of hatching. Continued monitoring is challenging as young will leave the natal nest site when threatened and adults will even relocate to a new area. Fledging typically occurs between days 20 and 24 (Bailey 1977). DuBois (1996) did not indicate any young fledged from the monitored colony, but did report newly fledged young participating in mobbing at the colony. No information is available regarding fledgling or juvenile success in Montana breeding colonies.

Active management for Black Terns in Montana is currently limited to continued population monitoring and water level fluctuation control. Several Black Tern colonies are under federal or state control and monitoring of the population at those locations is completed annually. This monitoring can range from basic observation counts to nest location surveys. At some sites, federal or state agencies also monitor and regulate water levels during the breeding season for Black Terns, as well as other wetland species and waterfowl. Both population monitoring at perennial breeding locations and water level regulation should be continued on an annual basis and be expanded to other locations where Black Terns breed in the state.

  • Literature Cited AboveLegend:   View Online Publication
    • Bailey, P. F. 1977. The breeding biology of the black tern. M.S. thesis, University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. 67 pp.
    • Bent, A. C. 1921. Life histories of North American gulls and terns. U.S. National Museum Bulletin 113. Washington, D.C.
    • DuBois, K. 1996. Black Tern nest monitoring at Freezout Lake WMA. Montana Dept. Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Unpublished report. 7 pp.
    • Farrand, J., ed. 1983. Audubon Society master guide to birding, 3 volumes. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 1244 pp.
    • Goodwin, R. E. 1960. A study of the ethology of the black tern,chlidonias niger surinamensis (Gmelin). Ph.D. dissertation, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. 193 pp.
    • Heath, S.R., E.H. Dunn, and D.J. Agro. 2009. Black Tern (Chlidonias niger). The Birds of North American Online (A.Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North American Online: (Accessed 21 March 2016)
    • Marks, J.S., P. Hendricks, and D. Casey. 2016. Birds of Montana. Arrington, VA. Buteo Books. 659 pages.
    • Montana Bird Distribution Committee. 2012. P.D. Skaar's Montana bird distribution. 7th Edition. Montana Audubon, Helena, Montana. 208 pp. + foldout map.
    • Montana Natural Heritage Program. 2003. Data derived from Element Occurences with no other known source material. BIOTICS. Helena, MT.
    • Rauscher, R. L. 2000. A survey of black terns in Montana. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Nongame Program, Bozeman, MT. 36 pp.
  • Additional ReferencesLegend:   View Online Publication
    Do you know of a citation we're missing?
    • [WWPC] Washington Water Power Company. 1995. 1994 wildlife report Noxon Rapids and Cabinet Gorge Reservoirs. Washington Water Power Company. Spokane, WA.
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    • American Ornithologists Union. 1983. Checklist of North American birds, 6th Edition. 877 PP.
    • American Ornithologists’ Union [AOU]. 1998. Check-list of North American birds, 7th edition. American Ornithologists’ Union, Washington, D.C. 829 p.
    • Baggerman, B., et al. 1956. Observations on the behavior of the black tern, Chlidonias niger L., in the breeding area. Ardea 44:2-71.
    • Bergman, R. D., P. Swain, and M. W. Weller. 1970. A comparative study of nesting Forster's and black terns. Wilson Bull. 82:435-444.
    • Brown, M. and J. J. Dinsmore. 1986. Implications of marsh size and isolation for marsh bird management. J. Wildl. Manage. 50:392-397.
    • Burleigh, T. D. 1952. Spring migration. Audubon Field Notes 6:258-260, 291, 292.
    • Casey, D. 2000. Partners in Flight Draft Bird Conservation Plan Montana. Version 1.0. 287 pp.
    • Casey, D. 2004. Coordinated bird monitoring in Montana - special habitat/species monitoring: wetlands and colonial nesters. Montana Bird Conservation Partnership and University of Montana. pp 12 plus appendix.
    • Chapman, B.A. and L.S. Forbes. 1984. Observations on detrimental effects of great blue herons on breeding black terns. Journal of Field Ornithology. 55(2): 251-252.
    • Chapman-Moser, B. 1987. Factors influencing reproductive success and nesting strategies in black terns. Ph.D. thesis, Simon Fraser Univ., British Columbia.
    • Connell, S. R., and A. J. Norman. 1989. Survey of colonial nesting birds in Maple District, 1989. Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, Maple, Ontario. 82 pp.
    • Cuthbert, N. L. 1954. A nesting study of the black tern in Michigan. Auk 71:36-63.
    • Delehany, D.J. and W.D. Svedarsky. 1993. Black Tern colonization of a restored prairie wetland in northwestern Minnesota. Prairie Nat. 25:213-218.
    • Dickson, D. C. 1991. Systematic wildlife observations on the Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area. Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Missoula, MT. 14 pp. plus appendices and photographs.
    • Dood, A.R. 1980. Terry Badlands nongame survey and inventory final report. Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks and Bureau of Land Management, Helena, MT. 70 pp.
    • Dunn, E. H. 1979. Nesting biology and development of young in Ontario black terns. Can. Field-Nat. 93:276-281.
    • Dunn, E.H. and D.J. Agro. 1995. Black Tern (Chlidonias niger<\i>). Species Account Number 147. The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca, NY: Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology; Retrieved 3/25/2008 from The Birds of North America Online database
    • Ehrlich, P., D. Dobkin, and D. Wheye. 1988. The birder’s handbook: a field guide to the natural history of North American birds. Simon and Schuster Inc. New York. 785 pp.
    • Eisenmann, E. 1951. Northern birds summering in Panama. Wilson Bull. 63:181-185.
    • Faanes, C. A. 1979. Status of the black tern in western Wisconsin. Passenger Pigeon 41:124-128.
    • Faber, R. A., and J. J. Hickey. 1973. Eggshell thinning, chlorinated hydrocarbons and mercury in inland aquatic bird eggs, 1969 and 1970. Pestic. Monit. J. 7:27-36.
    • Faber, R. A., and J. Nosek. 1985. Preliminary assessment of tern reproduction in relation to environmental contaminants on the Mississippi River. Unpubl. report to Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, St. Paul, Minnesota. 22 pp.
    • Feigley, H. P. 1997. Colonial nesting bird survey on the Bureau of Land Management Lewistown District: 1996. Unpublished report, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Lewistown, Montana.
    • Firstencel, H. 1987. The black tern (Chlidonias niger Linn.): breeding ecology in upstate New York and results of pesticide residue analysis. M.S. thesis, State Univ. of New York, Rockport. 63 pp.
    • Fox, G. A. 1976. Eggshell quality: its ecological and physiological significance in a DDE-contaminated common tern population. Wilson Bull. 88:459-477.
    • Gerson, H. 1987. The Status of the Black Tern (Chlidonias niger) in Canada. Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), Toronto, Ontario. 54 pp.
    • Gniadek, Steve. 1983. Southwest Glendive Wildlife Baseline Inventory. BLM, Miles City District. 56pp with appendices.
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Citation for data on this website:
Black Tern — Chlidonias niger.  Montana Field Guide.  Montana Natural Heritage Program and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.  Retrieved on January 18, 2017, from