The world gets a little quieter each day when night falls and the last of the songbirds stop singing. But where do they go each night? Do they sleep?
Most bird species are diurnal, which means they are active during the day and sleep at night. Different birds roost (sleep) in different places, but these spots are typically somewhere safe from predators and harsh weather.
Contrary to popular belief, adult birds do not usually sleep in nests. Most songbirds roost in trees and bushes instead, and many waterbirds and shorebirds simply sleep on the ground. Birds sleep in some pretty surprising places, however, including on water and even in the air.
Read this article to learn the secrets of how and where birds sleep. Some of the answers are stranger than fiction!
Most birds sleep in a standing or perched position. Passerines, which are also known as songbirds or perching birds have a firm grip and excellent balance, so they do not have to worry about falling off their perch while sleeping.
Some birds like baby owls and condors can even sleep lying down on their bellies.
Birds typically turn their heads back while sleeping, often tucking their bill into their back feathers for warmth. If you’re lucky enough to get a good look at a sleeping bird, you might even notice it balancing on one leg.
Bird legs are often completely unfeathered, so they lose body heat very easily. Sleeping one leg allows birds to hold the other up close to the body where it can be kept warm.
Read on to learn more fascinating facts about where birds sleep at night.
Eurasian Bullfinch sleeping on a branch
Birds sleep in all sorts of different places, depending on their species and the landscape around them. They select safe, warm, and sheltered roost sites because they are so vulnerable to predators while they sleep.
Let’s take a look at a few examples of places where birds sleep and the kinds of birds that might sleep there.
Most birds roost in tree branches and other tall vegetation. These sites offer them protection from terrestrial predators like coyotes while also providing good shelter from the elements.
Some woodpeckers that stay in the same areas all year round spend the cold winter nights roosting in tree cavities that they themselves have excavated. Nuthatches and chickadees also make use of these and other cavities for roosting.
Some woodpecker species sleep in tree cavities at night
Many water birds like gallinules and rails sleep in the shelter of dense reedbeds. Barn swallows and European starlings also frequently use reedbeds to bed down for the night.
Cliffs provide a perfect place for many large birds to sleep. Overhangs and small caves provide shelter from predators and bad weather while also radiating some warmth long after the sun sets. Peregrine falcons and golden eagles enjoy the safety of inaccessible cliffs for roosting.
Gannets sleeping on the cliff
Burrowing owls are unusual for their behavior of breeding and roosting in the burrows of small animals like prairie dogs and armadillos. In fact, these industrious birds can even dig their own holes when there are no existing burrows available.
Coastal areas are often treeless environments. Gulls, cormorants, and shorebirds may sleep on the ground or on rocks that provide some protection from predators. Rocks that form islands near the shore are particularly safe places to sleep.
Some birds, like whooping cranes, sleep while standing in shallow water. This smart strategy keeps them safe from predators that cannot sneak up to the birds silently enough to catch them off guard.
Burrowing Owls sleep in burrows
A pair of laughing gulls sleeping on the beach
Buildings and other man-made structures provide perfect roosting places because they combine safety and shelter. Most wild birds prefer natural roost sites but adaptable species like house sparrows and feral pigeons usually sleep in buildings.
Terrestrial birds like woodcocks often sleep on the ground at night. Some ground birds like scaled quails from the American Southwest protect themselves by sleeping back to back in small groups known as coveys. This helps them detect predators and keeps them warm on cold winter nights.
Amazingly, some birds don’t need to stop flying to sleep! Frigatebirds and swifts are examples of birds that can sleep while flying.
Swifts have the remarkable ability to sleep on the wing (whilst flying in the air)
Different bird species have different social structures and roosting behaviors. Many birds sleep on their own at night, while others stick together in pairs for most of the year.
Some birds huddle up in small, stable groups, and then there are birds like European starlings that spend the night in huge flocks totaling as many as 100,000 individuals.
Starlings can roost in large flocks at night, totaling the thousands
Most diurnal songbirds arrive at their roost sites around dusk and begin to stir shortly before dawn breaks in the eastern sky. They will spend the night in the same place unless disturbed, although they probably won't sleep uninterrupted the whole night through.
Birds need to stay on high alert all night and they are easily disturbed by sounds like the movement of other roosting birds. Their sleep cycles are much shorter than our own, lasting about two minutes or so in the Non-Rapid Eye Movement phase and just nine seconds in the REM phase.
Some birds can enter a much deeper sleep known as torpor. This can last just one night or even as long as several weeks in the case of the common poorwill. Torpor is pretty similar to hibernation and allows birds like hummingbirds to survive cold winter nights without running out of energy.
Hummingbirds enter a deeper sleep known as torpor
It is not exactly certain whether birds dream, but scientists think they can. Birds enter the REM phase of sleep, just like we do. Most dreaming occurs during this phase and scientists have recorded increased activity in the parts of the brain involved in singing while birds sleep.
Perhaps birds dream about singing, but unfortunately, we can’t ask birds to describe their dreams!
Many resident birds sleep in the same place throughout the year. Some birds, like the common redpoll, are able to survive cold winter nights by huddling together to share body warmth.
Other species are not as brave and migrate south each year to escape the challenges of keeping warm and finding food on those short, cold days. Migratory birds often show high site fidelity, meaning they will return to the same places in the north and south each year.
Birds on migration will choose suitable places to sleep each night unless they are forced to make large water crossings where rest is impossible. Many birds migrate by night and these species may take several short naps each day to keep well-rested.
Common Redpoll flock during the winter
Resident bird species often use the same roosting site in both the summer and winter. You can often discover long-term roost sites by the presence of accumulated bird droppings on the ground below.
Most birds breed in the spring and summer when the weather is mild and food is abundant. Many birds sleep near their nest site at this time. Eggs need to be incubated to maintain a steady temperature so one or both parents may spend time sleeping on the nest.
Two parrots sleeping together whilst perched
Baby birds sleep in their nest right? This is usually the case, but some birds rely on cozy nests more than others. Baby birds are usually classified as either precocial or altricial, and this makes a big difference in how they spend their days and nights.
Precocial birds are species like kildeer whose babies are relatively well developed when they hatch. These baby birds are ready to run around and even feed themselves very soon after hatching. Precocial baby birds tend to sleep on the ground rather than in nests.
Most baby birds are altricial. They hatch out into blind, naked, and helpless chicks. A comfy nest is so much more important to the survival of altricial chicks, although some bird parents are better nest builders than others. These babies sleep in the nest until they are old enough to fledge.
American Robin chicks sleeping in the nest
Birds build nests for incubating eggs and raising their chicks. Adult birds usually do not sleep in nests unless they are sitting on eggs or brooding young chicks.
Some birds can actually sleep in the air while flying. The alpine swift, for example, can spend up to 10 months in the air without landing by taking naps on the wing. The frigate bird, an impressive jet black seabird, is known to have the same amazing ability.
Birds do not hibernate in the strict sense of the word. Many species do enter torpor, however, which is a similar state but does not last as long. The common poorwill is known to enter torpor for several days at a time during the winter.
For more information, check out this guide.
Birds are able to sleep with one eye open, although they will close both eyes in deep sleep. Birds are able to sleep with one eye open by resting one half of their brains, a state known as unihemispheric slow-wave sleep.
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