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All You Need to Know About the Inca Tern Bird

Raksha Kulkarni
Inca terns are beautiful plumage birds, and their fame is credited to their unique mustache. This story will give you all the information you need to know about this one-of-a-kind bird.

Mark of Popularity

A picture of the Inca tern was first shown on the stamp of Antigua & Barbuda (Seabirds of the world sheet) in 1998. It was then shown on various other sheets in 2002 (Mozambique Seabirds), 2005 (Peru), and 2006 (Mozambique Surcharge).
The Inca tern is a beautiful and unique seabird that is different from the other seabirds. It is the only one belonging to the genus Larosterna. This is proved by the unique plumage presented by this bird.
The "mustache face" of this bird can be identified in no time. An important thing is that the bright colors are not restricted to only males; both males and females sport bright and beautiful colors. These birds are named after the range they are found―the ancient Inca empire.

Scientific Classification

✯ Kingdom: Animalia
✯ Phylum: Chordata
✯ Class: Aves
✯ Order: Charadriiformes
✯ Family: Sternidae
✯ Genus: Larosterna
✯ Species: Larosterna inca


The Inca tern has a gray slender body, a red-orange bill, and webbed feet.
The main characteristic is its white curled feathers that look like a mustache, a handlebar mustache to be precise, on each side of the beak and a yellow skin patch near the base of the bill. The head and tail feathers are almost black. The wings are lined with white. The tail is slightly forked.
Juveniles are blackish in color, and the sub-adults show some brown in them. They do not have those characteristic features until they are 1 - 2 years older. They have a pale body with black bills and legs. They grow up to 16 inches and will weigh around 0.5 pounds.
They make high-pitched sounds that are creaking or mew-like sounds. These sounds are mostly heard during the courting period. Other than that, they make noises to mark their territories or warn others.

Habitat and Feeding

These beauties are restricted to the west coast of South America, along the Humboldt Current. A few lucky sightings have been recorded on the southwest coast of Ecuador. They are seen on the Pacific coasts of Peru and Chile.
These are seabirds, and so they prefer to live in the cliff areas and rocky coasts. These birds are different from their other tern relatives, as they do not migrate! However, some non-breeding birds might move in search of food.
Inca terns are piscivores and feed on varied fish, with anchovies and planktons being their favorites. They do not dive deeper, and instead feed on fish found on the surface. They might not be very good swimmers (due to their big wings and small feet), but they are great flyers.
Hence, they spot their prey while hovering in the air and then quickly dip and catch the fish with their sharp bills. These birds are also known to steal food from other sea animals and some boats too.


Inca terns prefer nesting in inshore islands, but they nest in both inshore as well as offshore along the coasts. These birds are monogamous in nature, which means that they mate for life.
Courting for them is very important as the male showcases its talent like flying up high, getting fish for the female, bowing to each other, etc.
The male finally impresses the female, and then they both set off to find a perfect place for their nest. These birds nest in cavities in the cliffs. Also, these birds nest in huge colonies. They are also seen to build nests in a vacated Humboldt penguin's nest and also in some old buildings.
These birds normally lay eggs twice a year: once in the period of April-July and then sometime in October-December. The female lays 1 - 2 eggs, and both the parents incubate it for 4 weeks.
Both parents raise the young ones, and the juvenile is ready after 7 weeks. The young chicks start flying after 4 weeks, but practice and do not leave the nest till another 3 - 4 weeks. Mostly, a couple returns to the same nest in the next breeding season.

Conservation Status

Only 150,000 of these seabirds remain in the wild and are listed as Near Threatened by the IUCN. Shortage of food sources have caused the population to decline.
Excessive guano harvesting has deprived the birds of their nesting areas. Cats, rats, and many other predators have caused decline of Inca terns in many islands. These birds may fall prey to sea lions too. The Peruvian Government is taking efforts to protect these special species along the coastline.