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Elegant Tern Thalasseus elegans
BirdLife is updating this factsheet for the 2016 Red List
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This species is considered Near Threatened as it has a restricted breeding range, with more than 90% of the breeding population being restricted to a single island. It is also subject to large population fluctuations in response to climatic effects, and could be negatively affected by climate change, human intrusions and overfishing.

Taxonomic source(s)
AERC TAC. 2003. AERC TAC Checklist of bird taxa occurring in Western Palearctic region, 15th Draft. Available at: # _the_WP15.xls#.
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. Barcelona, Spain and Cambridge UK: Lynx Edicions and BirdLife International.
SACC. 2006. A classification of the bird species of South America. Available at: #

Taxonomic note
Thalasseus elegans (del Hoyo and Collar 2014) was previously placed in the genus Sterna.

Sterna elegans Gambel, 1849, Thalasseus elegans AOU checklist (1998 + supplements), Thalasseus elegans Stotz et al. (1996)

Distribution and population
Sterna elegans breeds along the Pacific coast from south California, USA, to Baja California and the Gulf of California, Mexico (Howell and Webb 1995a, AOU 1998). The estimated population is 51,000-90,000 individuals (J. A. Kushlan et al. 2002) with up to 95% breeding on Isla Rasa in the Gulf of California (Velarde and Anderson 1994). At least three other Mexican islands are used at least occasionally (Velarde and Anderson 1994). In addition, small populations breed on Bolsa Chica (50-4,000 pairs, first recorded in 1987) and in San Diego bay (500-800 pairs), California (Velarde and Anderson 1994, Gochfeld and Burger 1996, E. Verlarde in litt. 1998, B. Tershy and B. Keitt in litt. 1999). Non-breeding birds summer from California to Costa Rica (AOU 1998). Birds winter from Guatemala to El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Chile (AOU 1998). There are significant population fluctuations, probably caused by the effects of El Niño Southern Oscillation (compounded by over-fishing) on prey abundance and consequently breeding success (E. Verlarde in litt. 1998, B. Tershy and B. Keitt in litt. 1999). Only the Isla Rasa colony breeds every year (B. Tershy and B. Keitt in litt. 1999), but fluctuations are considerably less than one order of magnitude.

Population justification
Kushlan et al. (2002).

Trend justification
The population is suspected to undergo dramatic fluctuations in response to El Niño Southern Oscillation events and subsequent fluctuations in fish populations (Velarde and Anderson 1994, B. Tershy and B. Keitt in litt. 1999).

This species breeds on flat rocky areas and is strongly tied to the coast. It forages in inshore waters, estuarine habitats, salt ponds and lagoons, with some individuals venturing further offshore in the non-breeding season.

Population fluctuations may be related to El Niño Southern Oscillation events, but food supply may also be influenced by over-fishing. Nest robbery formerly reduced colony size on Isla Rasa, but this site now receives adequate protection.

Conservation Actions Underway
Conservation Actions Proposed
Monitor population trends throughout the breeding range. Research links between climate, fisheries, prey availability and breeding success. Ensure continued effective protection of all breeding colonies.

Anderson, D. W. 1976. The Gulf of California, Mexico. Canadian Field-Naturalist 90: 270-271.

AOU. 1998. Check-list of North American birds. American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.

Gochfeld, M.; Burger, J. 1996. Sternidae (Terns). In: del Hoyo, J.; Elliott, A.; Sargatal, J. (ed.), Handbook of the birds of the world, pp. 624-667. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.

Howell, S. N. G.; Webb, S. 1995. A guide to the birds of Mexico and northern Central America. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Kushlan, J. A.; Steinkamp, M. J.; Parsons, K. C.; Capp, J.; Cruz, M. A.; Coulter, M.; Davidson, I.; Dickson, L.; Edelson, N.; Ellio, R.; Erwin, M.; Hatch, S.; Kress, S.; Milko, R.; Miller, S.; Mills, K.;…authors continued in notes. 2002. Waterbird conservation for the Americas. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service National Publications Clearinghouse, Shepherdstown, U.S.A.

Sowls, A. L.; DeGange, A. R.; Nelson, J. W.; Lester, G. S. 1980. Catalogue of California seabird colonies. US Fish and Wildlife Service, US Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.

Velarde, E.; Anderson, D. W. 1994. Conservation and management of seabird islands in the Gulf of California: setbacks and successes. In: Nettleship, D.N.; Burger, J.; Gochfeld, M. (ed.), Seabirds on islands: threats, case studies and action plans, pp. 229-243. BirdLife International, Cambridge, UK.

Further web sources of information
Explore HBW Alive for further information on this species

Search for photos and videos, and hear sounds of this species from the Internet Bird Collection

Text account compilers
Benstead, P., Butchart, S., Gilroy, J., Sharpe, C J

Keitt, B., Tershy, B., Verlarde, E.

IUCN Red List evaluators
Butchart, S., Symes, A.

Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2016) Species factsheet: Thalasseus elegans. Downloaded from on 27/10/2016. Recommended citation for factsheets for more than one species: BirdLife International (2016) IUCN Red List for birds. Downloaded from on 27/10/2016.

This information is based upon, and updates, the information published in BirdLife International (2000) Threatened birds of the world. Barcelona and Cambridge, UK: Lynx Edicions and BirdLife International, BirdLife International (2004) Threatened birds of the world 2004 CD-ROM and BirdLife International (2008) Threatened birds of the world 2008 CD-ROM. These sources provide the information for species accounts for the birds on the IUCN Red List.

To provide new information to update this factsheet or to correct any errors, please email BirdLife

To contribute to discussions on the evaluation of the IUCN Red List status of Globally Threatened Birds, please visit BirdLife's Globally Threatened Bird Forums.

Additional resources for this species

ARKive species - Elegant tern (Sterna elegans) 0

Key facts
Current IUCN Red List category Near Threatened
Family Laridae (Gulls, Terns, Skimmers)
Species name author Gambel, 1849
Population size mature individuals
Population trend Stable
Distribution size (breeding/resident) 1,400 km2
Country endemic? No
Links to further information
- Additional Information on this species