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Least Terns - "Not my baby!"

Least tern baby
A Least tern baby begging for minnows. Photo: Susan Rouillier

If you look carefully on beaches in late June, you can see white sand-balls running on orange legs and feet. The moving spheres are tennis-ball sized and are punctuated with large orange mouths almost perpetually held open. These are baby Least terns, only a day or two old, hatched from a 2-inch speckled egg laid in a shallow scrape right on the bare sand.

Least tern eggs
Least tern eggs on the sand in Mississippi. Photo: Susan Rouillier

Babies emerge with open eyes and the ability to walk, but they hang around the scrape for a couple of days. Then they run around begging for minnows on quick legs that move in a blur like in the cartoon, The Roadrunner. They must run or risk becoming an easy lunch for gulls, raptors, rats and other mammals.

Least tern baby in the sand scrape. Photo: Susan Rouillier

Least tern parents dive into the water all day, and return with fat minnows that the baby swallows whole, down into the orange hatch as fast as an oyster-eating contestant.

Adult Least tern with minnow, and baby. Photo: Susan Rouillier

"Not my baby"....

At first it appeared that a parent would give its fish into any baby, but careful watching showed that parents are picky with who gets their fish. Too far away to be heard, I found myself yelling from behind a long lens, “Give it the fish!”, when one parent refused to feed an earnestly begging baby. Then, the same chick literally bowed down on the ground in front of the adult, intimidated. The parent never gave this chick the fish and left to find another baby! Perhaps the parents do know which chick is their own.

A Least tern baby "bows" down to adult who wouldn't give it a fish. Photo: Susan Rouillier

Least terns are on the threatened list, mainly because they like the same habitats as we do: beaches. Surely we can spare some space for these small vulnerable struggling creatures.

Least tern babies on the beach in Mississippi. Photo: Susan Rouillier

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Susan Rouillier
Bird Photographer and Painter

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