Bookmark and Share

More press releases

For Immediate Release, June 8, 2010

Contact: Tierra Curry, Center for Biological Diversity, (928) 522-3681

Western Gull-billed Tern Closer to Endangered Species Act Protection

CARLSBAD, Calif.— Responding to a petition from the Center for Biological Diversity, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today issued a finding that the western gull-billed tern may warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act. The finding initiates a one-year federal review of the bird’s conservation status.

“We are pleased to see this rare California bird move one step closer to the Endangered Species Act protection it needs to survive,” said Tierra Curry, a Center biologist. “The tern has a very small population, with numerous threats in its extremely limited range.”

The tern is exceedingly rare, with only around 200 breeding pairs in the United States and only 600 to 800 pairs globally. In the United States, it only occurs in San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge and at the Salton Sea, where in the former it is threatened by the killing of adults to prevent collisions with naval aircraft and at the latter it is threatened by pollution and falling water levels. Throughout their range, gull-billed terns are threatened by habitat loss, predation, human intrusion at nesting locations, and changing environmental conditions resulting from global climate change.

“The gull-billed tern is clearly in need of protection,” said Curry. “We hope the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will do the right thing and save this unique bird.”

Despite the perilous status of the tern, one of the main threats to the species in recent years has been the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service itself. Because of drastic loss of natural habitat in the San Diego area, western gull-billed terns now nest in the same area at the Bay Refuge as two other endangered seabirds, the western snowy plover and California least tern. In an effort to protect eggs and chicks of the other two species from predation by the gull-billed tern, in previous years the Refuge had proposed to kill the eggs of the gull-billed tern. In response to the Center’s listing petition, the egg culling was halted.

“The solution to saving the plover and the tern is to provide more and better habitat, not to sacrifice an equally endangered species,” said Curry.


The western gull-billed tern is a stout, white, medium-sized, black-capped seabird with a black bill and black legs and feet.

Worldwide there are six subspecies of gull-billed terns, two of which are found in North America, the eastern and western gull-billed tern. The western gull-billed tern is also known as van Rossem’s gull-billed tern.

Gull-billed terns are unique among terns in that in addition to making shallow dives for fish, they also consume insects in the air and land on the ground to catch food such as lizards and crabs.

In Mexico, where the tern is also highly threatened, there are 12 breeding locations and around 500 breeding pairs.

Go back