One common misconception is that all birds sleep in nests, regardless of whether they are raising young. Outside of breeding season, it is very rare for birds to spend nights on empty nests – nests serve the purpose of keeping eggs safe and housing chicks until they are ready to fly.
It’s not practical or possibly even particularly comfortable for a bird to rest this way in the long-term. But if it’s not to a nest, where do birds go at night? Read on as we look into the night-time habits of resting avians.
Each night, diurnal birds head to an overnight roosting spot to rest. For some individual birds, this might be a solitary perch in the densest, most sheltered branches of a tree. Others will head to a communal roosting site, shared with hundreds or even thousands of other birds.
Not all birds will revisit the same roosting spot night after night, although there are benefits from choosing to sleep within easy reach of daytime foraging and feeding grounds.
Birds that roost communally may return to the same flock each night, having spent daylight hours elsewhere. Huddling together with other birds brings the dual benefits of shared body heat and increased protection from predators with many vigilant pairs of eyes keeping watch on the fringes of the roost
Keep reading as we unravel the mystery of where birds go at night, take a look at bird bedtimes, and investigate the benefits of communal roosts.
A flock of birds roosting for the night
Outside of breeding season, birds generally do not spend nights asleep on nests. While raising young, parent birds will either share overnight brooding duties or these fall to a sole parent, while the other bird is roosting elsewhere.
Diurnal birds (those that are active during daylight hours) spend nights resting, either in communal roosting spots, in the upper branches of trees, in shrubs or bushes, in disused buildings, or in cavities in walls or under eaves – anywhere that offers a sheltered, secure spot where disturbance by a predator is of minimal risk.
Woodpeckers will find or create a cavity to sleep in, even outside of nesting season. They do not reuse hollows they have used in a previous year, and will drill out a new site to rest in. Abandoned woodpecker cavities may be used as communal resting spots by pygmy nuthatches, with more than 150 sometimes sharing a suitable hollow, especially in winter months.
Some smaller birds may even use disused nest boxes as overnight shelter, particularly in wet or exceptionally cold weather. Ducks will instinctively head for a place where they feel least threatened when seeking a sleeping spot. Many ducks sleep on water overnight, especially in warmer weather, to reduce the chances of being disturbed by predatory mammals.
For more information on where birds sleep, check out this guide.
Often woodpeckers sleep in cavities at night
Birds do not always spend nights in the same spot, although they do tend to rest fairly near to their feeding grounds. When they have identified a safe place to sleep overnight, there is no reason for them not to revisit it several times.
For many birds, it makes sense to find a night-time roost in a familiar spot, close to the foraging grounds that they visit during the day.
Birds are always seeking ways to conserve energy, so finding a roosting spot as close to a tried-and-tested food supply would enable a bird to wake up and start feeding without having to spend time and energy traveling.
Many owls, Frogmouths, Night herons, and Nightjars are the most prolific nocturnal species, living their lives under cover of darkness, foraging or hunting between dusk and dawn and then finding a sheltered spot to roost in during daylight hours.
Nightingales, American robins, and Northern mockingbirds can regularly be heard singing after dark, both during and outside of breeding season.
Some bird species, including warblers, sparrows, cuckoos, and orioles, undertake their migrations at night, using the moon and stars to navigate, and then rest during the day. Skies are quieter and air is cooler and there is less threat from predators.
Night herons actively forage between dusk and dawn
Many birds enjoy the benefit of resting as part of a communal roost in winter. Huddling together with other birds offers the bonus of additional warmth without having to expend extra energy on maintaining their body temperature.
In cities birds may seek safe spots under the eaves of buildings, under bridges, on top of parking lots, or in the branches of any trees or shrubbery they come across in parks and back yards.
City environments bring an increasing level of light pollution, so in these areas it is not uncommon for bird activity to continue later into the evening than in places with less artificial lighting.
Robins are a common species that are active in cities during the night
To maintain good health, all birds require between 10 and 12 hours of sleep each night (or day). As a rule, diurnal birds tend to start preparing to roost around sunset, and will be ready to fall asleep when it gets dark. They wake the next morning, once daylight has started to break. In winter they may sleep for longer than in summer months, as a means of conserving energy.
Nocturnal birds follow the opposite schedule, sleeping during the day and waking to resume their nightly pattern of activity once darkness falls.
Nocturnal species like this Eastern Screech Owl sleep during the day
Safety in numbers is one theory behind why birds roost in communal flocks. Birds on the outside of the flock remain vigilant, allowing those at the heart of the huddle to rest more fully.
Communal roosts also have the benefit of shared body heat. In winter two or three Acorn woodpeckers or up to five Green woodpeckers may share the same tiny cavity, huddled tightly together, lowering the thermoregulatory demands of each individual bird.
Vast roosts of American crows, with as many as 200,000 birds, thought mainly to be unpaired individuals, gather together after dusk, often in the same spot for several weeks or months before suddenly dispersing.
A flock of American Crows returning to their roost for the night
Birds spend their days foraging at diverse feeding grounds, but travel some distances to return to these crowded, noisy roosting spots each evening. The reason for such large roosts forming is unknown, but theories include socialization, potentially finding a mate or gaining experience from observing older roost members.
Red-winged blackbirds tend to roost alone in their own territories during breeding season, but during winter months they join larger roosts with several hundred other birds, often of mixed species, that feed and rest together.
Spectacular murmurations can be observed as they head to the roosting spot, thought to have the purpose of confusing any potential predators and boosting their chances of a safe and undisturbed night.
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