Seabird Group Seabird Group

Low recruitment of Common Terns Sterna hirundo in the declining Barnegat Bay population

Brian G. Palestis ORCID logo

* Correspondence author. Email:

Department of Biological Sciences, Wagner College, Staten Island, New York 10301, USA.

Full paper


Common Tern Sterna hirundo populations have declined in the southern portion of their breeding range along the Atlantic coast of the United States. The Barnegat Bay (New Jersey, USA) population has been declining, with sea-level rise increasing the frequency of flooding of salt marsh islands believed to be a contributory factor. Productivity is typically very poor, relative to studies undertaken elsewhere, and a previous analysis suggested permanent emigration of breeding adults out of Barnegat Bay. At Pettit Island, a long-term study site in the bay, the number of ringed chicks recaptured as adults was extremely low, even when accounting for mortality prior to fledging. Of 1,314 chicks ringed at Pettit Island from 2006 to 2014, only 23 were recaptured as adults at Pettit from 2010 to 2017 (1.8%, or 3.9% of presumed fledglings). Correcting for the proportion of adults captured, recruitment by four years of age was estimated at 8.1 to 9.3% of fledglings, or 3.5 to 4.0% of all chicks. Recruits comprise a small percentage of breeders in the colony. Of 34 adults captured in 2016, 10 were previously ringed and only three of these had been ringed as chicks (8.8% of total, 30% of ringed birds). It is unlikely that the small number of returns at Pettit Island simply reflects natal dispersal within the bay, because no terns ringed as chicks at Pettit Island were recaptured as young breeders at other colonies. Whether poor recruitment reflects low postfledging or subadult survival, or emigration out of the population is unknown.


Concern about biodiversity loss has often focused on rare species in danger of extinction, but many ‘species of least concern’ (according to International Union for the Conservation of Nature criteria) at a global level have experienced steep declines in numbers, losses of local populations, and range contractions (Ceballos et al. 2017). Seabird populations have decreased world-wide, with especially large declines among cosmopolitan long distance migrants in general, and among terns in particular (Paleczny et al. 2015). Common Terns Sterna hirundo, although widespread and abundant, have experienced notable population declines in several regions, such as the Great Lakes in North America (Morris et al. 2012; Nisbet et al. 2017) and the Wadden Sea in Europe (Szostek & Becker 2012). Along the Atlantic coast of the United States, Common Tern populations in the northeast appear to be stable (Nisbet et al. 2017), but those from about Jamaica Bay, New York, south have declined (Erwin et al. 2011; Burger & Gochfeld 2016; Nisbet et al. 2017).

In long-lived birds, such as terns, the population growth rate is most sensitive to changes in adult survival, but when adult survival varies little, other demographic parameters may actually be more likely to affect population dynamics (Sæther & Bakke 2000). There is increasing awareness of the importance of variation in juvenile survival and recruitment, immigration, and emigration to the dynamics of seabird populations (Frederiksen & Petersen 2000; Lebreton et al. 2003; Coulson & Coulson 2008; Ledwoń et al. 2014; García-Quismondo et al. 2018), including in the Common Tern (Tims et al. 2004; Szostek & Becker 2012; Szostek et al. 2014).

In Barnegat Bay, New Jersey, the number of Common Tern individuals has decreased since the mid 1980s and the number of colonies has decreased since the mid 1970s (Burger & Gochfeld 2016). Since about 2007, increased frequency and intensity of flooding presumably due to sea level rise (Sallenger et al. 2012; Kopp et al., 2016), has caused low productivity at extant colonies and made former colony sites unsuitable (Palestis 2009; Palestis & Hines 2015; Burger & Gochfeld 2016). An analysis of apparent adult survival of Common Terns suggested high rates of emigration out of Barnegat Bay (Palestis & Hines 2015). Here I analyse recruitment of Common Terns at Pettit Island, a long-term study site in the bay. Although apparent adult survival at Pettit Island (0.88, Palestis & Hines 2015) is similar to estimates from stable populations (Nisbet et al. 2017), the number of breeding pairs has declined and there may be too few recruits entering the breeding population to sustain this colony.


Funding was provided by the Eastern Bird-Banding Association, Biosocial Research Foundation, Mollica Family Fund, John Deane Fund for Environmental Studies, the Megerle Endowment and Wagner College. I thank K. Eppinger, M. Fealey, J. Husic, S. O’Neill, M. Shaw, M. Stanton, M. Valero, and A. Zummo for assistance in the field, and Joanna Burger and Mike Gochfeld for providing traps and sharing information on Barnegat Bay tern colonies. I also thank Richard Buzby and the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge for allowing fieldwork on their properties, and the borough of Surf City, New Jersey, for providing a location for boat mooring.


Acker, P., Francesiaz, C., Béchet, A., Sadoul, N., Lessells, C. M., Pijl, A. S. & Besnard, A. 2017. Insights on dispersal and recruitment paradigms: sex-and age-dependent variations in a nomadic breeder. Oecologia 186: 85–97. Crossref

Becker, P. H., Ezard, T. H. G., Ludwigs, J.-D., Sauer-Gürth, H. & Wink, M. 2008. Population sex ratio shift from fledging to recruitment: Consequences for demography in a philopatric seabird. Oikos 117: 60–68. Crossref

Braasch, A., Schauroth, C. & Becker, P. H. 2009. Post-fledging body mass as a determinant of subadult survival in Common Terns Sterna hirundo. Journal of Ornithology 150: 401–407. Crossref

Braby, J., Braby, S. J., Braby, R. J. & Altwegg, R. 2011. Immature survival and age at first breeding of Damara Terns: conservation from a non-breeding perspective. Ardea 99: 185–190. Crossref

Buckley, P. A. & Buckley, F. G. 2000. Patterns of colony-site use and disuse in saltmarshnesting Common and Roseate Terns. Journal of Field Ornithology 71: 356–369. Crossref

Burger, J. & Gochfeld, M. 1991. The Common Tern: its breeding biology and social behavior. Columbia University Press, New York, NY.

Burger, J. & Gochfeld, M. 2016. Habitat, population dynamics and metal levels in colonial waterbirds: A food chain approach. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL. Crossref

Ceballos, G., Ehrlich, P. R. & Dirzo, R. 2017. Biological annihilation via the ongoing sixth mass extinction signaled by vertebrate population losses and declines. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 114: E6089–E6096. Crossref

Coulson J. C. & Coulson, B. A. 2008. Measuring immigration and philopatry in seabirds; recruitment to Black-legged Kittiwake colonies. Ibis 150: 288–299. Crossref

Dicostanzo, J. 1980. Population dynamics of a Common Tern colony. Journal of Field Ornithology 51:229–243.

Dittmann, T., Ludwigs, J.-D. & Becker, P. H. 2001. The influence of fledgling number and hatching order on return rates of Common Terns Sterna hirundo. Atlantic Seabirds 3: 179–186.

Dittmann, T., Zinsmeister, D. & Becker, P. H. 2005. Dispersal decisions: Common Terns, Sterna hirundo, choose between colonies during prospecting. Animal Behaviour 70: 13–20. Crossref

Erwin, R. M., Brinker, D. F., Watts, B. D., Costanzo, G. R. & Morton, D. D. 2011. Islands at bay: rising seas, eroding islands, and waterbird habitat loss in Chesapeake Bay (USA). Journal of Coastal Conservation 15: 51–60. Crossref

Frederiksen, M. & Petersen, A. 2000. The importance of natal dispersal in a colonial seabird, the Black Guillemot Cepphus grylle. Ibis 142: 48–57. Crossref

García-Quismondo, M., Nisbet, I. C. T., Mostello, C. & Reed, J. M. 2018. Modeling population dynamics of Roseate Terns (Sterna dougallii) in the Northwest Atlantic Ocean. Ecological Modelling 368: 298–311. Crossref

Kopp, R. E., Kemp, A. C., Bittermann, K., Horton, B. P., Donnelly, J. P., Gehrels, W. R., Hay, C. C., Mitrovica, J. X., Morrow, E. D. & Rahmstorf, S. 2016. Temperature-driven global sea-level variability in the Common Era. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 113: E1434–E1441. Crossref

Lebreton, J. D., Hines, J. E., Pradel, R., Nichols, J. D. & Spendelow, J. A. 2003. Estimation by capture-recapture of recruitment and dispersal over several sites. Oikos 101: 253–264. Crossref

Ledwo´n, M., Betleja, J., Stawarczyk, T. & Neubauer, G. 2014. The Whiskered Tern Chlidonias hybrida expansion in Poland: the role of immigration. Journal of Ornithology 155: 459–470. Crossref

Ledwo´n, M., Neubauer, G. & Betleja, J. 2013. Adult and pre-breeding survival estimates of the Whiskered Tern Chlidonias hybrida breeding in southern Poland. Journal of Ornithology 154: 633–643. Crossref

Ludwigs, J.-D. & Becker, P. H. 2002. The hurdle of recruitment: influences of arrival date, colony experience and sex in the Common Tern Sterna hirundo. Ardea 90: 389–399.

Ludwigs, J.-D. & Becker, P. H. 2006. Individual quality and recruitment in the Common Tern, Sterna hirundo. Acta Zoologica Sinica 52(Suppl.): 96–100.

Møller, A. P., Flensted-Jensen, E., Mardal, W. & Soler, J. J. 2013. Host-parasite relationship between colonial terns and bacteria is modified by a mutualism with a plant with antibacterial defenses. Oecologia 173: 169–178. Crossref

Morris, R. D., Pekarik, C. & Moore, D. J. 2012. Current status and abundance trends of Common Terns breeding at known coastal and inland nesting regions in Canada. Waterbirds 35: 194–207. Crossref

Nisbet, I. C. T. 1978. Population models for Common Terns in Massachusetts. Bird-Banding 49: 50–58. Crossref

Nisbet, I. C. T. 1981. Behavior of Common and Roseate Terns after trapping. Colonial Waterbirds 4: 44–46. Crossref

Nisbet, I. C. T. 1996. Post-fledging survival in Common Terns in relation to brood order, hatching date and parental age. Colonial Waterbirds 19: 253–255. Crossref

Nisbet, I. C. T. 2000. Disturbance, habituation, and management of waterbird colonies - Commentary. Waterbirds 23: 312–332.

Nisbet, I. C. T., Arnold, J. M., Oswald, S. A., Pyle, P. & Patten, M. A. 2017. Common Tern (Sterna hirundo). In: Rodewald, P. G., (ed.) The Birds of North America. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY ( Crossref

Nisbet, I. C. T., Monticelli, D., Spendelow, J. A. & Szczys, P. 2016. Prebreeding survival of Roseate Terns Sterna dougallii varies with sex, hatching order and hatching date. Ibis 158: 327–334. Crossref

Paleczny, M., Hammill, E., Karpouzi, V. & Pauly, D. 2015. Population trend of the world’s monitored seabirds, 1950–2010. PLOS ONE 10(6): e129342. Crossref

Palestis, B. G. 2009. Use of artificial eelgrass mats by saltmarsh-nesting Common Terns (Sterna hirundo). In Vivo 30(3): 11–16.

Palestis, B. G. & Hines, J. E. 2015. Adult survival and breeding dispersal of Common Terns (Sterna hirundo) in a declining population. Waterbirds 38: 221–228. Crossref

Palestis, B. G. & Stanton, M. D. 2013. Responses of Common Tern chicks to feather sample removal. Wilson Journal of Ornithology 125: 646–650. Crossref

Post, P. W. & Gochfeld, M. 1979. Recolonization by Common Terns at Breezy Point, New York. Proceedings of the Colonial Waterbird Group 2: 128–136. Crossref Sæther, B.-E. & Bakke, Ø. 2000. Avian life history variation and contribution of demographic traits to the population growth rate. Ecology 81: 642–653. Crossref

Sallenger, A. H., Jr., Doran, K. S. & Howd, P. A. 2012. Hotspot of accelerated sea-level rise on the Atlantic coast of North America. Nature Climate Change 2: 884–888. Crossref

Szostek, K. L. & Becker, P. H. 2012. Terns in trouble: Demographic consequences of low breeding success and recruitment on a Common Tern population in the German Wadden Sea. Journal of Ornithology 153: 313–326. Crossref

Szostek, K. L. & Becker, P. H. 2015. Survival and local recruitment are driven by environmental carry-over effects from the wintering area in a migratory seabird. Oecologia 178: 643–657. Crossref

Szostek, K. L., Schaub, M. & Becker, P. H. 2014. Immigrants are attracted by local prebreeders and recruits in a seabird colony. Journal of Animal Ecology 83:1015–1024. Crossref

Tims, J., Nisbet, I. C. T., Friar, M. S., Mostello, C. & Hatch, J. J. 2004. Characteristics and performance of Common Terns in old and newly-established colonies. Waterbirds 27: 321–332. Crossref

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 1996. Significant habitats and habitat complexes of the New York Bight watershed. U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, Southern New England - New York Bight Coastal Ecosystems Program, Charlestown, Rhode Island ( Accessed 17 October 2017.