Sterna bernsteini
a brief history

by Andrew Easton

The Chinese Crested Tern has always been rare and little known; further confusion was caused by it being independently described and named twice, first as Sterna bernsteni by Schlegel in 1863, and then S. zimmermanni by Reichenow in 1903.

Chinese Crested Tern
Photo by Chang Show-Hwa
Reproduced with permission of the Wild Bird Federation Taiwan http://bird.org.tw/

Its breeding grounds had never been discovered, but in 1937, 21 were killed for specimens on islands near Qingdao (Tsingtao) on the Shandong Peninsula in north east China. Some of these were reported to be in breeding condition, so it has always been assumed that this was a breeding area.
There were some old winter records from the south east coast of China near Fuzhou (Foochow) in Fujian province, and neighbouring Guangdong province; south Thailand; north west Borneo; Halmahera and the Phillipines.

After the 1937 massacre (I can think of no more appropriate word for it) the species was not recorded again until June 1980 when 10 were seen near Libong in south Thailand, and three probable ones were seen in the Huang Ho delta in September 1991, just to the north of the presumed breeding range.
Chinese Crested Tern distribution map
Dark blue represents the known wintering areas. 
No doubt the true distribution will prove to be 
much more extensive when the identification features 
for this species are properly sorted out.

The immature plumages and eggs are undescribed, hardly surprising, as  killing all the birds that turn up to breed and putting them into draws in museums does tend to inhibit reproductive success.. Similarly its diet and behaviour are completely unknown.

Then in the summer of 2000 quite out of the blue came news  that four pairs, with four young between them, had been discovered breeding on an island just off the coast of Fuzhou in China, but administered by Taiwan. This is a long way to the south of the earlier records, but where it has previously been recorded in winter, whether this indicates it to be resident in that area, or just that it returns early to the nesting sites remains to be seen. Provided they are given a chance. Fortunately the island is already a nature reserve so there is a degree of protection here, but egg poaching for food is quoted as a problem in the area.

Chinese Crested Terns with Crested Terns
Article from the Hong Kong  iMail newspaper 8th August 2000

Click here to view BBC News website article - this link will open in a new browser window

The photograph released to the press taken by the discoverer, Liang Chieh-teh, shows two adults with one small chick, nesting  next to pairs of Crested Terns S. bergii. The most striking feature is the very extensive white fore crowns of the Chinese Crested Terns, this came as quite a surprise as all illustrations of summer plumaged adults were depicted with full black crowns. The photographs were taken in mid summer in June, so would be expected to show typical summer plumage. So not only are its behaviour, nesting details, and immature plumages unknown, but the seasonal variation in the plumages of the adult birds is now thrown into some confusion.
It seems quite probable that some Chinese Crested Terns viewed distantly, when the black tip to the bill would not necessarily be discernible, but which had a white fore crown, may have been passed over as Crested Tern. So much for the collecting of specimens helping the identification process.

Observation of the living birds should reveal the true plumage patterns of the species far more reliably than individual corpses frozen at a moment in time ever can.


del Hoyo, J., Elliot, A., & Sargatal, J.  eds (1996) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 3. Hoatzins to Auks. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
King, Warren B. compiler (1981) Endangered Birds of the World, The ICBP Red Data Book. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.