For the Birds Radio Program: Book Review: The Book of Terns

Original Air Date: Aug. 10, 1988

Laura talks about sea swallows and a book of puns.

Duration: 3′49″


(Recording of a Common Tern)

One of the most beautiful of all water birds is the Common Tern. This lovely creature is also called the sea swallow for its long pointed wings and forked tail, which are displayed to perfection as it darts and hovers above the water of lakes and oceans. It also catches fish in breathtaking dives. This ballerina of the sky may be elegant in appearance, but its voice is anything but elegant.

(Recording of a Common Tern)

Although terns are in the same family as gulls, they aren’t hard to tell apart. Gulls are thicker in build, with a short tail and wider wings. Also, terns have a black cap above their white head, and a blood red bill and feet. The most striking field mark, evident from a long distance, is the uniquely slender and graceful body of terns.

There are many fine books about birds on the market, but my favorite book about terns cannot quite be considered ornithological. The Book of Terns, by Peter Delacorte and Michael C. Witte, is a collection of wonderful puns about terns and illustrations to match. A tern in a cage is naturally suffering from internment. There are pictures of a slattern, a ternpike, a lantern, an atterney, and internationals. Naturally there is an eastern and a western, and also maternity, paternity, and a hilarious fraternity. There’s a preternatural picture along side a strange tern of events. One good tern deserves another in this big tern out, where no stone is left unterned as the authors take us to the point of no retern.

The Book of Terns may include just about every tern pun there is, but it doesn’t have any information about the harsh reality of real terns. Common Terns are so named because they used to be common over much of the United States and Canada. Unfortunately, because they are high in the aquatic food chain as fish eaters, they collect and concentrate harmful pollutants. They are also extremely sensitive to man’s encroachment and development of the land on their historical nesting grounds, so Common Terns have declined dangerously in the past few decades. Their more common relative, Forster’s Tern, is still found on many small lakes in Minnesota and Wisconsin, though not in the numbers it once enjoyed, but the Common Tern, which is found on larger bodies of water, is now literally endangered in the inland United States. Back in the 30’s, the colony in the Duluth Harbor area numbered in the thousands, but currently only a handful are nesting. Because of the development of the harbor, the Department of Natural Resources in both Minnesota and Wisconsin are cooperating to try to move the nesting birds to Herding Island on the Minnesota side and Barker’s Island on the Wisconsin side, but so far have had little success–this year there was a big problem with raccoon predation. People living in the area are often inconvenienced by the restrictions on human activity in the management area, but for the most part have been cooperative and really good sports about the whole project. Thanks to them, one day the graceful sea swallow may again be a common sight in the Northland.

(Recording of a Common Tern)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”