Courtship Feeding and Mating Rituals in Terns

In many different groups of birds the male feeds the female during courtship or incubation. In nearly all birds it is the male which feeds the female. Courtship feeding is a common behavior that cements the pair-bond between mated birds also nutritional importance to the female at the time when she is forming eggs. The male offers a tidbit of food to the female, sometimes at the nest site if it has already been chosen. Courtship feeding is most pronounced, and often most exciting to watch behavior.

Little Tern (Sterna albifrons)    Little Tern (Sterna albifrons)    Little Tern (Sterna albifrons)

In most cases of courtship feeding, the female adopts an attitude and calls almost identical with those of a young bird begging food from its parents, and the male puts food into the female’s mouth. In some birds, the male simply collects the food in his beak and then presents it to the female; in others, notably in some bird groups, the male regurgitates the food to the female, as he also does when feeding the young. While this is the normal procedure there are a few variations. Thus in gulls, the male regurgitates the food on to the ground in front of the female, and the female then swallows it.

Saunders's Tern (Sternula saundersi)

In Terns, presentation of food is often preceded by a ceremonial flight or Pose. In many species in which courtship feeding occurs, the male also feeds the female on or near the nest during incubation. Hence, at this stage of the breeding cycle, the food may have real significance.

Mating Rituals in Saunders’s Tern (Sternula saundersi)

Mating Rituals in Saunders’s Tern (Sternula saundersi)

Courtship feeding is frequently seen in terns. For instance, in an effort to lure females to their territories in the nesting area, a male Saunders’s Tern carries a fish around the breeding colony and displays it to prospective mates. After a pair bond is formed, during the “honeymoon period” the male tern actually feeds the female, and soon thereafter they begin to copulate. During the following five to ten days, both sexes feed themselves, but the male also frequently feeds the increasingly dependent female. For the few days prior to egg laying the female is fed almost exclusively by the male, but this activity declines rapidly as the second and third eggs are laid.

Caspian Tern(Hydroprogne caspia)    Caspian Tern(Hydroprogne caspia)    Caspian Tern(Hydroprogne caspia)

Caspian Terns(Hydroprogne caspia) exhibit a great amount of parental care. Both adults incubate the eggs and feed and care for chicks. during early stages of egg-laying, males continue to feed females, while they lay and incubate eggs, as a courtsip acitivity. When attempting to obtain mate, unpaired males and females display the following sequence of behavior: Male captures fish and flies toward group of terns on ground, giving Fish Call and performing Fish-Bending display often several times in succession. Unpaired females on ground respond by taking flight and following male as he performs Fish Flight, also known as Low Flight: circling and flying low (10–20 m) over colony. Observations of marked terns indicate that other males and paired females whose mates are not present also join chase. After passing over standing birds up to a dozen or more times, fish carrier often lands near them, joined by pursuers. Alternatively, male lands next to lone individual (usually female) standing on edge of group. Carrying fish crosswise in bill, he approaches her and makes bowing movement with head. Female responds by ignoring male, attempting to steal fish, or initiating precopulatory behavior. Often, female actively solicits fish by begging in Hunched-Posture: Stoops low and horizontally, plumage sleeked, with neck retracted, Head-tossing from horizontal upwards. Early in season, males are hesitant to relinquish fish, and few initial interactions end with male feeding fish to female. Males may arrive with fish and perform Fish Flight many times during the day with different females. If repeated with same bird, male gradually decreases time spent performing display until he lands next to female and feeds her fish with no hesitation. Copulation often follows courtship-feeding. Males performing Low Flight and females pursuing males often visit several different colony sites per day until they acquire a mate.

Little Tern (Sternula albifrons)


Saunders’s Tern (Sternula saundersi)


Caspian Tern(Hydroprogne caspia)


Further Reading on Courtship Feeding and Breeding Biology of Terns:

  • Baird, J. (1967). “Some Courtship Displays of the Golden-Winged Warbler.” The Wilson Bulletin 79(3): 301-306.
  • Blanchard, L. and R. D. Morris (1998). “Another Look at Courtship Feeding and Copulation Behavior in the Common Tern.” Colonial Waterbirds 21(2): 251-255.
  • Bolton, M., D. Houston, et al. (1992). “Nutritional Constraints on Egg Formation in the Lesser Black-Backed Gull: An Experimental Study.” Journal of Animal Ecology 61(3): 521-532.
  • Brackbill, H. (1944). “Normal and Inverted Courtship Feeding by the Robin.” The Auk 61(1): 138-139.
  • Brenninkmeijer, A., E. W. M. Stienen, et al. (2002). “Feeding ecology of wintering terns in Guinea-Bissau.” Ibis 144(4): 602-613.
  • Brockway, B. F. (1964). “Ethological Studies of the Budgerigar: Reproductive Behavior.” Behaviour 23(3/4): 294-324.
  • Calado, M. (1996). “Little Tern (Sterna albifrons) Status and Conservation at Ria Formosa Natural Park, Algarve, Portugal.” Colonial Waterbirds 19(ArticleType: research-article / Issue Title: Special Publication 1: Ecology, Conservation, and Management of Colonial Waterbirds in the Mediterranean Region / Full publication date: 1996 / Copyright © 1996 Waterbird Society): 78-80.
  • Catry, P. and R. W. Furness (1997). “Territorial intrusions and copulation behaviour in the great skua,Catharacta skua.” Animal Behaviour 54(5): 1265-1272.
  • Catry, T., J. A. Ramos, et al. (2004). “Are salinas a suitable alternative breeding habitat for Little Terns Sterna albifrons?” Ibis 146(2): 247-257.
  • Catry, T., J. A. Ramos, et al. (2006). “Intercolony and Annual Differences in the Diet and Feeding Ecology of Little Tern Adults and Chicks in Portugal.” The Condor 108(2): 366-376.
  • Collins, C. T. (2006). “Interspecific Kleptoparasitism of Elegant Terns by Snowy Egrets.” Waterbirds: The International Journal of Waterbird Biology 29(3): 401-404.
  • Coulson, J. C. and J. Horobin (1976). “The influence of age on the breeding biology and survival of the Arctic tern Sterna paradisaea.” Journal of Zoology 178(2): 247-260.
  • Elliott, M. L., R. Hurt, et al. (2007). “Breeding Biology and Status of the California Least Tern Sterna antillarum browni at Alameda Point, San Francisco Bay, California.” Waterbirds: The International Journal of Waterbird Biology 30(3): 317-325.
  • Ellis, J. M. S., T. A. Langen, et al. (2009). “Signalling for food and sex? Begging by reproductive female white-throated magpie-jays.” Animal Behaviour 78(3): 615-623.
  • Fasola, M. and G. Bogliani (1990). “Foraging Ranges of an Assemblage of Mediterranean Seabirds.” Colonial Waterbirds 13(1): 72-74.
  • Fasola, M. and L. Canova (1991). “Colony site selection by eight species of gulls and terns breeding in the ≪Valli di Comacchio≫ (Italy).” Bolletino di zoologia 58(3): 261-266.
  • Fasola, M. and L. Canova (1992). “Nest Habitat Selection by Eight Syntopic Species of Mediterranean Gulls and Terns.” Colonial Waterbirds 15(2): 169-178.
  • Fletcher, K. L. and K. C. Hamer (2003). “Sexing terns using biometrics: the advantage of within-pair comparisons: Within-pair comparisons substantially improve the accuracy of sexing from biometrics for two congeneric species of seabird with monomorphic plumage and soft-tissue colouration.” Bird Study 50(1): 78-83.
  • Fraser, G. (1997). “Feeding Ecology of Forster’s Terns on Lake Osakis, Minnesota.” Colonial Waterbirds 20(1): 87-94.
  • Gibb, J. (1950). “THE BREEDING BIOLOGY OF THE GREAT AND BLUE TITMICE.” Ibis 92(4): 507-539.
  • Gill, V. A., S. A. Hatch, et al. (2002). “Sensitivity of breeding parameters to food supply in Black-legged Kittiwakes Rissa tridactyla.” Ibis 144(2): 268-283.
  • Goutner, V. (1990). “Habitat Selection of Little Terns in the Evros Delta, Greece.” Colonial Waterbirds 13(2): 108-114.
  • Hong, S.-B., Y.-T. Woo, et al. (1998). “Effects of clutch size and egg-laying order on the breeding success in the Little Tern Sterna albifrons on the Nakdong Estuary, Republic of Korea.” Ibis 140(3): 408-414.
  • Ishtiaq, F. and A. R. Rahmani (2005). “The Forest Owlet Heteroglaux blewitti: vocalization, breeding biology and conservation.” Ibis 147(1): 197-205.
  • Kilham, L. (1981). “Courtship Feeding and Copulation of Royal Terns.” The Wilson Bulletin 93(3): 390-391.
  • Koga, K. and S. Shiraishi (1994). “Copulation behaviour of the Black Kite Milvus migrans in Nagasaki Peninsula.” Bird Study 41(1): 29-36.
  • Lack, D. (1940). “Courtship Feeding in Birds.” The Auk 57(2): 169-178.
  • Lack, D., M. M. Nice, et al. (1941). “Courtship Feeding in Birds.” The Auk 58(1): 56-60.
  • Langham, N. P. E. (1974). “Comparative Breeding Biology of the Sandwich Tern.” The Auk 91(2): 255-277.
  • Massey, B. W. (1998). “Species and Subspecies Limits in Least Terns.” The Condor 100(1): 180-182.
  • Mazzocchi, I. M., J. M. Hickey, et al. (1997). “Productivity and Nesting Habitat Characteristics of the Black Tern in Northern New York.” Colonial Waterbirds 20(3): 596-603.
  • Megyesi, J. L. and C. R. Griffin (1996). “Breeding Biology of the Brown Noddy on Tern Island, Hawaii.” The Wilson Bulletin 108(2): 317-334.
  • Mougeot, F., B. E. Arroyo, et al. (2006). “Paternity assurance responses to first-year and adult male territorial intrusions in a courtship-feeding raptor.” Animal Behaviour 71(1): 101-108.
  • Mougeot, F., J. C. Thibault, et al. (2002). “Effects of territorial intrusions, courtship feedings and mate fidelity on the copulation behaviour of the osprey.” Animal Behaviour 64(5): 759-769.
  • Neuman, J., J. W. Chardine, et al. (1998). “Courtship Feeding and Reproductive Success in Black-Legged Kittiwakes.” Colonial Waterbirds 21(1): 73-80.
  • Oro, D., A. Bertolero, et al. (2004). “The Biology of the Little Tern in the Ebro Delta (Northwestern Mediterranean).” Waterbirds: The International Journal of Waterbird Biology 27(4): 434-440.
  • Paiva, V. H., J. A. Ramos, et al. (2008). “Foraging habitat selection by Little Terns Sternula albifrons in an estuarine lagoon system of southern Portugal.” Ibis 150(1): 18-31.
  • Paiva, V. H., J. A. Ramos, et al. (2008). “Foraging habitat selection by Little Terns Sternula albifrons in an estuarine lagoon system of southern Portugal.” Ibis 150(1): 18-31.
  • Perrow, M. R., E. R. Skeate, et al. (2006). “Radio telemetry as a tool for impact assessment of wind farms: the case of Little Terns Sterna albifrons at Scroby Sands, Norfolk, UK.” Ibis 148: 57-75.
  • Saino, N. and M. Fasola (1996). “The Function of Embryonic Vocalization in the Little Tern (Sterna albifrons).” Ethology 102(2): 265-271.
  • Saino, N., M. Fasola, et al. (1994). “Adoption Behaviour in Little and Common Terns (Aves; Sternidae): Chick Benefits and Parents’ Fitness Costs.” Ethology 97(4): 294-309.
  • Scarton, F. (2008). “Population Trend, Colony Size and Distribution of Little Terns in the Lagoon of Venice (Italy) between 1989 and 2003.” Waterbirds: The International Journal of Waterbird Biology 31(1): 35-41.
  • Schew, W. A., C. T. Collins, et al. (1994). “Growth and Breeding Biology of Caspian Terns (Sterna caspia) in Two Coastal California Environments.” Colonial Waterbirds 17(2): 153-159.
  • Scolaro, J. A., S. Laurenti, et al. (1996). “The Nesting and Breeding Biology of the South American Tern in Northern Patagonia (Nidificacion y Biologia de la Reproduccion de Sterna hirundinacea en Patagonia Norte).” Journal of Field Ornithology 67(1): 17-24.
  • Stokes, A. W. (1971). “Parental and Courtship Feeding in Red Jungle Fowl.” The Auk 88(1): 21-29.
  • Stokes, A. W. and H. W. Williams (1971). “Courtship Feeding in Gallinaceous Birds.” The Auk 88(3): 543-559.
  • Stokes, A. W. and H. W. Williams (1972). “Courtship Feeding Calls in Gallinaceous Birds.” The Auk 89(1): 177-180.
  • Sullivan, K. A. (1984). “Cooperative Foraging and Courtship Feeding in the Laughing Gull.” The Wilson Bulletin 96(4): 710-711.
  • Tavecchia, G., N. Baccetti, et al. (2005). “Colony specific variation in the use of a moulting site in the migratory little tern Sterna albifrons.” Journal of Avian Biology 36(6): 501-509.
  • Vanderwerf, E. A. (2003). “Distribution, Abundance, and Breeding Biology of White Terns on Oahu, Hawaii.” The Wilson Bulletin 115(3): 258-262.
  • Villard, P. and V. Bretagnolle (2010). “Breeding Biology of the Bridled Tern (Sterna anaethetus) in New Caledonia.” Waterbirds 33(2): 246-250.
  • Whittier, J. B., D. M. Leslie, Jr., et al. (2006). “Genetic Variation among Subspecies of Least Tern (Sterna antillarum): Implications for Conservation.” Waterbirds: The International Journal of Waterbird Biology 29(2): 176-184.
  • Wiggins, D. A. and R. D. Morris (1987). “Parental care of the Common Tern Sterna hirundo.” Ibis 129: 533-540.
  • Zavalaga, C. B., M. A. Plenge, et al. (2008). “The Breeding Biology of the Peruvian Tern (Sternula lorata) in Peru.” Waterbirds: The International Journal of Waterbird Biology 31(4): 550-560.