On Terns

Voice Card  -  Volume 27  -  Paul Card Number 14  -  Sun, Feb 21, 1993 10:21 AM


by F. E. Warburten

Essays for a Scientific Age

Terns are a type of bird with webbed feet. They are, there- fore, waterfowl, like ducks and penguins, and so may be found in the same books as albatrosses and eagles but probably not in the same books as wrens and wrobins. This is because waterbird watchers are so snobbish about dicky-birds.

Some terns are Arctic, some are Roseate, some are Black, and some are Caspian. In the tropics, some are Noddy, but nice. A few terns are Royal, but the majority are Common and proud of it - so proud of it that, in places, U-terns are prohibited.

Terns won't eat anything but fish, so it is no use putting out bits of suet and coconut for them in winter; all you will get is dicky-birds, and you will have to buy a new book. Anyway, terns don't stick around in the winter. Arctic terns, for example, spend the summer at the North Pole. When it begins to get cold, they fly south to spend the winter at the South Pole, where it is summer. Having spent the winter at the South Pole, they fly North to avoid the winter, arriving at the North Pole in the summer while it is winter where they wintered. This remarkable migration, which involves flying more tha 11,000 miles annually, was discovered when an Arctic tern, banded one summer in New Jersey, was found floating belly up, in the Congo River some other summer.

Terns are found in pairs, if they are good, because one good tern deserves another. They build their nests on the ground and places like that, and lay from zero to seven eggs. The usual number is zero, but many succeed in laying about two, or sometimes approximately three. The eggs are about the same size, shape, and colour as those of other birds. They get sat on for a while, and sooner or later some of them hatch. (This is but a brief summary of the combined findings of many ornithologists; space restric- tions preclude a description of the life history of terns in all its fascinating detail.)

Baby terns just a few days old are the cutest, fluffiest little things. They will sit on your hand just as friendly as anything, going "chirp, chirp" and looking at you with their big bright eyes and vomiting half-digested dead fish all over your shirt.

Our knowledge of terns is growing every day, as more and more research on them is carried out under the auspices of organizations like the Defense Research Board and the National Cancer Society, but there is still much to be learned. We can be confident, however, that one by one the problems will be solved. Science will not rest while yet a single tern remains unstoned.