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The Sooty Tern, Onychoprion fuscatus (formerly Sterna fuscata), is a seabird of the tern family (Sternidae). It is a bird of the tropical oceans, breeding on islands throughout the equatorial zone. Colloquially, it is known as the Wideawake Tern or just wideawake. This refers to the incessant calls produced by a colony of these birds, as does the Hawaiian name ʻewa ʻewa which roughly means "cacophony". In most of Polynesia its name is manutara or similar however – literally "tern-bird", though it might be better rendered in English as "the tern" or "common tern". This refers to the fact that wherever Polynesian seafarers went on their long voyages, they would find these birds, and usually in astounding numbers.


This is a large tern, similar in size to the Sandwich Tern (Thalasseus sandvicensis) at 33-36 cm (13-14 in) long with a 82-94 cm (32-37 in) wingspan. The wings and deeply forked tail are long, and it has dark grey upperparts and white underparts. It has black legs and bill. Juvenile Sooty Terns are scaly grey above and below. The Sooty Tern is unlikely to be confused with any tern apart from the similarly dark-backed but smaller Bridled Tern (O. anaethetus). It is darker-backed than that species, and has a broader white forehead and no pale neck collar.

The call is a loud piercing ker-wack-a-wack or kvaark.


The Sooty Tern has little interspecific variation, but it can be divided into at least two allopatric subspecies. Some recent authors further subdivide the Indopacific population into up to 8 subspecies altogether, but much of the variation is really clinal. The affinities of the eastern Pacific birds (including the famous manutara of Easter Islandmarker) are most strongly contested.

Onychoprion fuscatus fuscatus (Linnaeus, 1766)Atlantic Sooty Tern

Underparts white. Breeds Atlanticmarker and Caribbeanmarker.

Onychoprion fuscatus nubilosus (Sparrman, 1788)Indopacific Sooty Tern

Underparts light grey in fresh plumage, dull white in worn plumage. Breeds from Red Seamarker across Indian Oceanmarker to at least central Pacificmarker. Some authors restrict this taxon to the Indian Ocean population and use the following subspecies for the birds from Indonesiamarker to the Americas:


Sooty Terns breed in colonies on rocky or coral islands. It nests in a ground scrape or hole and lays one to three eggs. It feeds by picking fish from the surface in marine environments, often in large flocks, and rarely comes to land except to breed, and can stay out to sea (either soaring or floating on the water) for between 3 to 10 years.

This bird is migratory and dispersive, wintering more widely through the tropical oceans. It has very marine habits compared to most terns; Sooty Terns are generally found inland only after severe storms. The Field Museummarker, for example, has a male specimen which was found exhausted on August 2 1933 on the slopes of Mount Cameroonmarker above Bueamarker, about 1,000 m (3,500 ft) ASL, after foul weather had hit the Gulf of Guineamarker. This species is a rare vagrant to western Europe, although a bird was present at Cemlyn Baymarker, Walesmarker for 11 days in July 2005.

It is also not normally found on the Pacificmarker coasts of the Americas due to its pelagic habits. At Baja Californiamarker, where several nesting locations are offshore, it can be seen more frequently, whereas for example only two individuals have ever been recorded on the coast of El Salvadormarker - one ring recovered in 1972, and a bird photographed on October 10, 2001 at Lake Olomegamarker which was probably blown there by a storm . Hurricanes can also devastate small breeding colonies, as has been surmised for example for the Sooty Tern nesting sites on caysmarker off the San Andrés Islands of Colombiamarker.

An exceptionally common bird, the Sooty Tern is not considered threatened by the IUCN.

Role in Easter Island culture

On Easter Islandmarker, this species and the Grey-backed Tern (O. lunatus) are collectively known as manutara. The manutara played an important role in the tangata manu ("birdman") ritual: whichever hopu (champion) could retrieve the first manutara egg from Motu Nuimarker islet would become that year's tangata manu; his clan would receive prime access to resources, especially seabird eggs.


Image:Sooty tern flying.JPG|O. f. nubilosus/oahuensis rookery on Tern Island (French Frigate Shoalsmarker)Image:Sooty Tern chick.JPG|O. f. nubilosus/oahuensis chick, Tern Island (French Frigate Shoals)Image:BFAL SOTE shade.JPG|O. f. nubilosus/oahuensis chicks using a young Black-footed Albatross as a sunshadeImage:Frigate sooty.JPG|A Great Frigatebird youngster has snatched an O. f. nubilosus/oahuensis chick



  • (1952): A collection of birds from Mount Cameroon. Fieldiana Zool. 34(5): 35-64. Fulltext at the Internet Archivemarker
  • (2005): A phylogenetic framework for the terns (Sternini) inferred from mtDNA sequences: implications for taxonomy and plumage evolution. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 35(2): 459-469. PDF fulltext
  • (2006). Splitting headaches? Recent taxonomic changes affecting the British and Western Palaearctic lists. British Birds 99(6): 306-323.
  • (2005): El pelícano blanco americano (Pelecanus erythrorhynchus) en Colombia, con comentarios sobre los efectos de los huracanes en el Caribe [The American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchus) in Colombia, with comments on the effects of Caribbean hurricanes]. Caldasia 27(2): 271- 275 [Spanish with English abstract]. PDF fulltext
  • (2006): Nuevos registros para la avifauna de El Salvador. ["New records for the avifauna of El Salvador"]. Boletín de la Sociedad Antioqueña de Ornitología 16(2): 1-19. [Spanish with English abstract] PDF fulltext
  • (1995): Terns of Europe and North America. Christopher Helm, London. ISBN 0-7136-4056-1
  • (1992): New Pocket Hawaiian Dictionary with a Concise Grammars and Given Names in Hawaiian. University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu. ISBN 0-8248-1392-8
  • (1877): Some Account of the Natural History of the Fanning Group of Islands. Am. Nat. 11(2): 65-72. First page image
  • (1891): Maori-Polynesian Comparative Dictionary. Lyon and Blair, Wellington.

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