From Iceland — Ask An Expert: How To Avoid an Arctic Tern Attack

Ask An Expert: How To Avoid an Arctic Tern Attack

Ask An Expert: How To Avoid an Arctic Tern Attack

Published May 11, 2022

Alice Poggio
Photo by
Art Bicnick

The Arctic Tern is a fascinating and impressive bird. Over its lifetime (20-30years) they will travel over 70,000 km every year during their roundtrip voyage between Antarctica and the Polar regions, which is considered to be the longest migratory distance in the animal kingdom. They can sleep as they glide over these vast distances, and what else? Oh yeah, they’ll gladly dust off their fishing dive-bombing skills and use them to dive and peck at your head.

Here’s Gunnar Þór Hallgrímsson, Professor of Zoology at the University of Iceland and ornithology expert, to tell us why, and how to avoid getting attacked.

“The first step in avoiding any type of wildlife conflict is to understand their behaviour. Terns are very common in Iceland, so it is nearly impossible to travel around and not run into them. Luckily they show no aggression towards humans except when we approach their eggs and young. Those that walk into their colonies are asking for an attack, and might leave with a few bleeding wounds on their head.

Therefore, the key to avoiding an attack is to know how to recognise their breeding sites. Terns stay in colonies that range from a few tens up to several thousand pairs. These colonies are on flat ground, commonly gravel or short vegetation, and are both busy (birds flying back and forth) and noisy. Those that are unsure if they are approaching a tern colony can pay attention to the behaviour of the birds. The terns will not suddenly all attack. When approaching the colony, those individuals having a nest closest to you will start giving a fast and aggressive alarm call that sounds like kt-kt-kt-kt as well as the first attempts to dive at you. If possible, turn around and go the opposite way.”

If not, watch where you step, and find a stick to hold above your head. This should temporarily confuse the birds, who will focus on diving onto the new highest point.

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