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Birds At Night

Where Do Birds Go At Night?


Sleeping Bird

Most birds sleep at night.

Larry Lamsa

Birds can seem to be everywhere during the day, flitting among trees, foraging on the ground, visiting feeders and perching on every available stick, post or wire. But where do all these birds go at night?

Diurnal and Nocturnal Birds

Most birds are diurnal, which means they are most active during the day but they typically rest at night. Nocturnal birds, such as owls, frogmouths, nighthawks and night-herons, on the other hand, are most active during the night when they forage, hunt, care for their young, preen and do other activities necessary for survival.

Passerines, waterfowl, shorebirds, gulls and most raptors are all diurnal birds, but when they're not being active, what do they do?

How Birds Sleep

Like other animals that are active during the day, the principle nighttime activity of birds is sleeping. Birds choose how they sleep very carefully to ensure they can survive through the night, and they have certain tricks that help give them warning about predators or to protect them from the elements.

Sleeping away from predators...

  • Many bird species choose cavities or niches to roost in at night, which prevents predators from having easy access to them. These same cavities also provide shelter from poor weather, and may include bird roost boxes or empty bird houses.
  • Wading birds such as herons, egrets and flamingos will sleep standing in water. The sound and vibrations of a predator coming toward them through the water acts as an instant warning system in case of danger.
  • Ducks, geese and other waterfowl will float on the water to sleep, which gives them the same noise alarm system that wading birds take advantage of.
  • Small birds sleep perched high in trees, typically close to the trunk of the tree. The trunk holds heat from the daytime to provide better shelter, and the birds will be alerted to any vibrations predators make if they climb the tree looking for prey.
  • Many birds, such as red-winged blackbirds and other gregarious species, form large roost flocks at night. This provides them safety in numbers as they sleep, and several birds on the edges of the flock may remain alert through the night to guard against predators or other threats.

Sleeping on cold nights...

  • Many bird species, most notably hummingbirds, can enter a state of torpor when they sleep. This lowers their body temperature and conserves energy for them to survive the lower temperatures at night.
  • Birds that gather in large roosts or join together in cavities or roost boxes can share body heat as they sleep. This can be risky, however, and birds may smother if they are grouped to closely in a small area with little ventilation.
  • Birds tuck their bills into their shoulder or backs while sleeping. This puts their nostrils into their plumage where the air is heated by their bodies, giving them warmer air to breathe while they sleep.
  • Birds have other methods to keep warm, and on cold nights they will fluff their feathers to create better air pockets to insulate themselves from low temperatures. Parent birds will brood their chicks at night to keep them safe and warm no matter what the weather conditions.

No matter where birds sleep or what the weather may be, they always take steps to ensure they survive to see another day of activity.

Other Bird Nighttime Activities

While sleeping is the most popular nighttime activity for most birds, it is not the only thing birds will do at night. Depending on the time of year, birds may also work to attract mates or migrate to a new part of their range at night.

  • Night Singing: Birds that sing at night are advertising their territory at a time when there is less ambient noise and their calls can be heard at greater distances. This can help deter competitors as well as attract a mate. Many birds, such as the northern mockingbird, sedge warbler and whip-poor-will have been known to sing nearly through the entire night. Nights with bright moonlight or in areas where there is a lot of artificial light are often filled with birdsong.
  • Night Migration: Many diurnal birds disrupt their activity patterns in order to migrate during the night instead of during the day. This allows them to take advantage of the same routes that birds of prey will use, but because raptors need daytime thermal currents to soar, migrating at night helps smaller birds avoid contact with too many predators. Birds also use stars for navigating, and the less turbulent air during the day can make flight easier.

While daytime may be the best time to see most birds, understanding where birds go at night can help birders get a better appreciate of how birds survive, and can give everyone ideas for how to help even the smallest birds survive every night.

Photo – Sleeping Bird © Larry Lamsa

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