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Chlidonias leucopterus (White-winged tern) 

Witvlerksterretjie [Afrikaans]; Witvleugelstern [Dutch]; Guifette leucoptère [French]; Weißflügel-seeschwalbe [German]; Gaivina-d'asa-branca [Portuguese]

Life > Eukaryotes > Opisthokonta > Metazoa (animals) > Bilateria > Deuterostomia > Chordata > Craniata > Vertebrata (vertebrates)  > Gnathostomata (jawed vertebrates) > Teleostomi (teleost fish) > Osteichthyes (bony fish) > Class: Sarcopterygii (lobe-finned fish) > Stegocephalia (terrestrial vertebrates) > Tetrapoda (four-legged vertebrates) > Reptiliomorpha > Amniota > Reptilia (reptiles) > Romeriida > Diapsida > Archosauromorpha > Archosauria > Dinosauria (dinosaurs) > Saurischia > Theropoda (bipedal predatory dinosaurs) > Coelurosauria > Maniraptora > Aves (birds) > Order: Charadriiformes > Family: Laridae  > Genus: Chlidonias

Chlidonias leucopterus (White-winged tern)  Chlidonias leucopterus (White-winged tern) 
White-winged tern in breeding plumage, Paarl Bird Sanctuary, South Africa. [photo Trevor Hardaker ©] White-winged tern in non-breeding plumage. [photo Neil Gray ©]

Distribution and habitat

Breeds in the area from China to central Europe, heading south in the non-breeding season to south-east Asia, northern Australia and most of sub-Saharan Africa. Within southern Africa it is common in southern Mozambique, Zimbabwe, northern and south-eastern Botswana, central and northern Namibia (including the Caprivi Strip) and central and south-western South Africa. It generally prefers inland wetlands, either natural or artificial, such as sewage works and salt pans; it is generally more scarce at coastal estuaries and wetlands.

Distribution of White-winged tern in southern Africa, based on statistical smoothing of the records from first SA Bird Atlas Project (© Animal Demography unit, University of Cape Town; smoothing by Birgit Erni and Francesca Little). Colours range from dark blue (most common) through to yellow (least common). See here for the latest distribution from the SABAP2.  

Predators and parasites

It has been recorded as prey of Falco peregrinus (Peregrine falcon).

Movements and migrations

Most birds arrive in southern Africa in the period from August-November, probably originating from breeding grounds in central Asia. In February it begins to gather in flocks at the South African highveld, before leaving the region by April.


It mainly eats invertebrates and small fish, doing most of its foraging in flocks, flying upwind to catch flying insects before letting the wind carry it back so that it can repeat the process. It also regularly plunge dives for fish and is attracted to fishing boats, eating the fish they discard. Other techniques employed include following catfish (Clarias) to catch the animals disturb and seizing prey from the ground or water surface. The following food items have been recorded in its diet:


Not threatened, in fact widespread and common, although susceptible to botulism.


  • Hockey PAR, Dean WRJ and Ryan PG 2005. Roberts - Birds of southern Africa, VIIth ed. The Trustees of the John Voelcker Bird Book Fund, Cape Town.