Posted by: carlsafina | Wednesday, August 12 09

One Good Tern for the Record Books

tern 3

For about a decade I studied Common and Roseate Terns nesting on Long Island, and followed them as they were foraging at sea. I was studying their relationships with the fish they ate, including where and how they found fish in the ocean. During that time we also studied their breeding success, survival, and growth in their breeding colonies. To do so we individually marked thousands of birds with numbered leg bands. We banded many chicks, and also banded adults at their nests.

The mail recently brought a letter from the official U.S. Bird Banding Laboratory. It informed me that in July, researchers on Great Gull Island off the North Fork of Long Island encountered a nesting Common Tern that I had first banded as an adult in 1984. Because they don’t breed until age 2, this bird is at least 27 years old. I was so surprised I had to look at the letter several times to make sure I was reading the dates right. I also called the folks on Great Gull to double-check. It was all correct.

tern 2The previous oldest known Common Tern was 25. But, also last month, researchers on Great Gull Island encountered a 28 year old Common Tern. That’s the new record. Both of these finds are extraordinary. I suppose I would have loved to say “I” held the record. But the achievement is entirely the birds’, and they deserve celebrating to have lived so long against the odds and through good and bad years of food and weather, and so many migrations to South America and back.

It’s good to know that among all the gloom and doom we hear, seabirds are still setting survival records.

tern 1



  1. Thanks for all your good work and excellent books. Huge fan. I could cry at the state of the natural world, but you also share stories of hope and people trying to make a difference. When is your next book coming out?

    • Next big book will be out by next summer. Just in time for the beach as they say. I’m in the process of finishing it. But that process will take a while!

      I have a children’s book coming out much sooner, in a few months. It’s called Nina Delmar and the Great Whale Rescue.

  2. Thank you for this post! With so much talk of ocean acidification, rising sea levels, climate change, extinction, and over-fishing, it’s stories like this that keep enough hope alive to justify all the advocacy work we do.

    Will you be going to TED in the Galapagos next year?

  3. I am consistently amazed at the longevity of wild birds. In the Eye of the Albatross you mentioned albatross living more than 60 years. Now the terns are proven to live more than 25 years. I have to think about how many life threatening situations and “close calls” a bird may have in a single day, yet some individuals manage to survive and reproduce for decades in a world seething with human threats and degradation. Their life stories must be awesome. These animals deserve our respect and admiration.

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