Have you ever seen a bird with a mustache? No, we’re not talking about a cartoon character or a Halloween costume, but a real bird! The Inca tern, with its distinctive facial markings and acrobatic aerial displays, is a bird that’s sure to leave you spellbound. So, let’s dive into some intriguing Inca tern facts and discover what makes this bird so special.
1. They have a mustache
The Inca tern is a brilliantly colored seabird, with a charcoal gray body and white feathers coming out from beneath its wings. Its striking appearance is further accentuated by the vivid red color of its legs, bill, and webbed feet. Its long forked tail is black.
However, what truly sets the Inca tern apart is its unique handlebar mustache. It is created from a tuft of white feathers on either side of its bill. You can find this characteristic in both males and females.
Additionally, a slim wattle of vibrant yellow, hairless skin is located directly beneath the mustache on each side of the bird’s face.
While the mustache is certainly eye-catching, it serves a crucial purpose beyond mere decoration. In fact, the length of the mustache is an indicator of the bird’s health. The longer mustache, the healthier the bird. According to research, Inca terns with longer mustaches are more attracted to each other. They will have bigger offspring with greater immune responses.
The young birds have a brownish-purple appearance. They don’t develop their mustaches until they reach approximately two years of age.
In terms of size, the Inca tern is relatively large for a tern, having a wingspan of about 31.5 inches (80 cm). They measure between 15.35 – 16.53 inches (39 – 42 cm) in length and weigh from 6.35 to 7.40 ounces (180 to 210 g).
2. They live in the ancient Inca sites
The Inca tern, an eye-catching avian species, dwells in the region once dominated by the ancient Inca Empire. These birds inhabit the Pacific coasts of some South American countries, such as Peru, Ecuador, Chile, and Colombia. They are mostly found near the frigid waters of the Humboldt Current, where their prey lives.
Typically found in coastal areas, Inca terns favor both sandy beaches and craggy cliffs of guano islands, both offshore and inshore.
3. They’re sociable
These seabirds exhibit sociable behavior and thrive and nest in large colonies comprising several thousand birds. This group living behavior helps them fight better and defend themselves against predators more effectively. While they typically reside in colonies, during the breeding season, Inca terns venture out with their respective partners.
Another interesting fact about Inca terns is that they don’t migrate like other seabirds. However, non-breeding birds may migrate when facing limited food resources.
These birds are also distinctive for their call, which resembles an angry “cat-like meow” sound and can be quite loud. During courtship and territorial marking, Inca terns become particularly noisy, creating a raucous chorus that can be heard throughout the colony.
4. Inca terns are a thief
Inca terns are classified as piscivores, eating mainly fish, particularly anchovies. Their diet also includes other aquatic creatures such as plankton and crustaceans (crab, shrimp, crayfish, etc).
These species fly over the water to look for food under the water’s surface. When detecting one, they will plunge into the sea and catch it with their pointed, sharp beaks.
These birds also scavenge any scraps left behind by whales, dolphins, sea lions, and fishing boats. And if they don’t want to forage on their own, Inca terns can just steal food from other species, just like the magnificent frigatebird.
While magnificent frigatebirds steal food from other birds, Inca terns bravely swoop down to take food from the mouths of dolphins and sea lions, and even from fishing boats.
These birds have quite a few predators. They are attacked by owls, sea lions, turkey vultures, rats, peregrine falcons, and cats. Their eggs and young can be preyed upon by large seabirds.
The breeding season of Inca terns happens 2 times per year, from April to July, and from October to December. During these times, they will find their partners to breed with. Although they are considered monogamous, not all pairs mate for life. Some may switch partners each year, and they display their mating rituals to strengthen their new bonds.
To begin the rituals, the male will soar to several hundred feet at a high speed to impress the female. If the female is attracted, she will follow after him, and they will engage in a sky dance.
Additionally, the male will demonstrate his diving skills and offer the female a fish he caught while pursuing her in the air. This is a way for him to showcase his ability to provide for her and their offspring.
After the female accepts the male’s gift, the pair collaboratively selects a nesting site. It is usually within rocky cliffs’ crevices, fissures, burrows, and holes on sandy coasts. These places have to be deep enough to protect the birds’ eggs and young from danger.
Additionally, Inca terns have been observed nesting in vacated Humboldt penguin nests, abandoned buildings, and piles of wood.
After mating, the female lays 1 – 3 light brown eggs with dark brown spots. These eggs are incubated by both parents for about 3 – 4 weeks.
Once the chicks hatch, the male and female labor together to feed and raise them until they fledge at around 7 weeks old. These birds attain sexual maturity at 2 – 3 years and can live up to 14 years in the wild. In captivity, their lifespan is longer, about 20 years.
In the past, Inca terns were abundant with millions of individuals, but today, their population is only around 150,000 birds that exist in the wild. They are classified as Near Threatened by the IUCN. This status is attributed to various human activities such as overfishing, which negatively affects their primary food source, anchovies.
Moreover, excessive seabird poop harvesting poses another danger to these birds. This poop is a valuable fertilizer, but overexploitation of Guano islands where Inca terns frequently reside may lead to habitat destruction. Thankfully, the Peruvian government has established a reserve to safeguard these seabirds from harm.