It’s a fascinating experience to watch birds busily about their days. They seem to approach each day with a full agenda and actively get on with it while we watch. They feed, fly, build homes, and sing, as well as a host of other activities that we can’t explain. But have you ever noticed the lack of bird activity at night? Aside from the nocturnal varieties, birds are conspicuously quiet at night. Here’s where birds go at night.
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Do birds sleep at night? The short answer is yes, but the complete answer is more complicated and exciting. When it comes to sleep patterns, birds fall into two categories - nocturnal and diurnal.
Nocturnal birds sleep or are inactive during the daytime and become active at night. We immediately think of owls in this category, but other examples of nocturnal birds are Nighthawks, Frogmouths, Nightjars, and Kiwis. But most birds are diurnal, which means they are active during the daytime and inactive or asleep at night.
When most birds sleep, they assume a similar posture. They find a quiet, concealed, safe place where they may close their eyes to shut out the bright daylight (if they’re nocturnal). They fluff their down feathers, tuck their beak, and pull up one leg before they fall asleep. Although that seems like a strangely uncomfortable position for sleep, there is a method to the madness. The fluffed down feathers create warmth, the beaks are tucked to protect this vulnerable part, and one leg is pulled up because, well, they can’t pull up both.
They choose locations that keep them safe from predators, like high in tree branches or even inside of trees. Not all birds sleep this way, though.
If standing on one leg isn’t weird enough, waterfowl and shorebirds sleep near water. Ducks will sit on partly submerged rocks or branches and tuck up one leg. Chimney Swifts sleep inside chimneys, and some birds even sleep ‘on the wing’ - this means they sleep while flying high in the air. The Common Swift holds the record for continuous flight over a period - 10 months of non-stop flying! Still, other birds sleep hanging upside down, floating on water, laying on the ground, swimming, and standing.
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Of course, most of us think that birds sleep in their nests. But this isn’t generally true. Other than occasional naps while incubating their eggs or caring for young chicks, birds sleep in other locations. Although the idea of nests is comforting, they aren’t especially clean or comfortable for sleeping.
As explained earlier, many birds sleep high in the dense branches of trees away from predators and weather, while others, like woodpeckers, will find safety in the cavities of tree trunks. Smaller birds find sanctum in thick shrubbery or foliage, while still others are happy to sleep in man-made birdhouses or nesting boxes.
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When you or I sleep, we’re unconscious - unaware of what is happening in or around us. Birds, however, sleep consciously. They are capable of unihemispheric slow-wave sleep (UHSW), which means that only half of their brain is disengaged while sleeping. They remain aware and alert to possible dangers around them. This is why they respond so quickly when they hear noise or the sound of a predator. This UHSW may be how some birds can sleep while flying. Like us, the safer a bird feels while sleeping, the deeper their sleep will be. But if they feel unsafe, they engage UHSW.
There is evidence that sleeping birds dream! The robustus archistratalis (RA) area of their brains was observed as active while birds slept. This area of their brains is associated with singing, and scientists believe that birds dream at night about the songs they will sing the next day. This is similar to human dream activity - rehearsing learned behaviors and skills.
Since foraging for food is a major activity of birds during the day, it makes sense that they can do little at night. Most birds’ eyes are not suited to nighttime activities, so they sleep. It then follows that birds sleep from the time they can no longer see or have accomplished the day’s activity until there is enough light for them to resume activities.
We don’t know precisely what wakes birds up in the morning, but it’s likely they respond to the first signs of daylight. While the daylight is still minimal, many birds begin to sing. The songs, of varying types, ring out as early as 4 am in some places. The songs heard at dawn have been observed to be different from the songs heard throughout the day. These early songs may have to do with the species of bird, territorial rivalries, or mating. Once there is enough light, birds engage in social interactions and forage for food.
Although it sounds like birds get plenty of rest, there are circumstances where they may have difficulty finding safe places to sleep or face other challenges to getting good rest. Here are a few things you can do to help.
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Birds are fascinating. Their daytime activity is enjoyable to observe, and now we find that their nighttime behavior is equally interesting. These intelligent creatures find places to spend their nights that ensure their rest and safety. We still don’t have all the answers, so we’ll just keep watching.
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