©Simba Chan


Common name: Chinese Crested Tern
Scientific name: Thalasseus bernsteini
Local names: 中华凤头燕鸥 (Simplified Chinese), 中華鳳頭燕鷗/黑嘴端鳳頭燕鷗(Traditional Chinese), 뿔제비갈매기 (Korean), ヒガシシナアジサシ(Japanese), Dara-laut Cina (Indonesian), Camar Cina Berjambul (Malayu), Nhàn mào Trung Quốc (Vietnamese).
Conservation status: IUCN - Critically Endangered, CMS - Appendix I

The Chinese Crested Tern (Thalasseus bernsteini) is one of the rarest seabirds in the world. It seemed it had always been rare. It was not described until 1861, when the type specimen was collected at Kao, Halmahera, Indonesia. Since the last 21 specimens were collected at Qingdao, China in 1937, there was no confirmed record of the species. In 2000, the bird was resighted on Matsu Islands off the coast of Fujian. In 2004 another breeding colony was discovered at Jiushan Islands in Zhejiang Province. With international cooperation using social attraction restored the breeding colony, Chinese Crested Tern is estimated to be about 150 birds in population and is stable or slowly increasing.


  • Size: around 45 cm; wingspan 94 cm.
  • Head: Short crested, Breeding: entire cap turned black with crest; Non-breeding: forehead turned white
  • Beak: bright orange-yellow bill with a black tip and almost invisible white tip at the end of the beak
  • Light grayish from the mantle to upperwing, rump, uppertail-coverts and tail
  • forked tail;
  • black legs

Distribution range

Breeding range:

Since the rediscovery of the species in 2000, there are only five breeding locations: Jiushan Islands, Wuzhishan Islands (Zhejiang, China), Matsu Islands (Fujian, China), Penghu Islands (Taiwan, China) and Chilsando Islands in the Republic of Korea.

 Non-breeding range:

The bird is believed to breed off Shandong formerly, but is now only sighted in coastal areas in Shandong after breeding season. Non-breeding records were from South China, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand and eastern Malaysia.  Confirmed recent wintering grounds include Seram, Maluku of Indonesia and Mindanao of the Philippines. Eastern Indonesia and the Philippines are likely to be the major wintering areas for this species.


Breeding habitat of Chinese Crested Tern, Tiedun Dao, Zhejiang, China © Simba Chan

Chinese Crested Tern breeds only on offshore uninhabited islets, non-breeding habitat is of little information.

Non-breeding ground in Indonesia © Ken Fung


During the breeding season, Chinese Crested Tern usually congregate with Greater Crested Tern nesting areas, but in Ro Korea they nest in colony of Black-tailed Gulls. They can move between different colonies in the breeding season and are very nervous at disturbance. They are very little known during the non-breeding season but are likely to stay in flocks with Greater Crested Terns. However, these two species may not migrate together as previously assumed.

Breeding Chinese and Greater Crested Terns in Tiedun Dao, China © Simba Chan

Population estimate

About 150 individuals of all ages (prior to 2012, only less than 50 individuals).

Main threats

  • Human disturbance (people reaching too close to the breeding colonies)
  • Egg collection

Other threats:

  • Pollution (water pollution, plastic pollution)
  • Overfishing

Natural threats:

  • Typhoons
  • Natural predators (e.g. Peregrine Falcon, snakes, rats)

Conservation Work

Social attraction setting to restore Chinese Crested Tern in China © Vivian Fu

International collaboration to use social attraction technique to restore breeding population

Since 2011, an international cooperation project using social attraction (using decoys and playback) restored the breeding colony at Jiushan. The population increased from less than 50 to about 150 in 10 years. Subsequently, Social attraction was also done in breeding grounds of Matsu, Wuzhishan and Chilsando.

Remove human-induced threats

Through education and advocacy to promote law enforcement to prevent exploitation (egg collection) and disturbance, such as regulated tourism, allocation of park rangers for monitoring, as well as fishing communities and public engagement.

Fun Fact

  • Chinese Crested Tern was once thought extinct, so when it was rediscovered after 63 years in 2000, the bird was called “Bird of Legend”.
  • Prior to 1975, the Chinese Crested Tern was known as Sterna zimmermanni Reichenow 1903 and the type locality was thought to be Qingdao of Shandong Province, China (when the team from Fan Memorial Institute of Biology collected 21 specimens from Qingdao area in 1937 all of them were labeled as Thalasseus zimmermanni). It was later on corrected that the type specimen should be the one collected near Halmahera, Indonesia in 1861, which had been misplaced as a population of Greater Crested Tern. Interestingly, when Dr. Nagamichi Kuroda obtained his specimen of Chinese Crested Tern from Korea in 1917 he also regarded it as a Greater Crested Tern. Luckily he left a detailed description of this long-lost specimen for verification to be a Chinese Crested Tern.