Whenever I watch birds around dusk, it’s always fascinating to wonder about where exactly they go for the night.
It’s not always easy to observe birds after dark, so their nighttime habits are a common point of curiosity for students of nature.
People often wonder things like: Do birds actually sleep? Where do they go? Can they fly in the dark? And why do they sometimes make noise at 2am?
Birds do need to sleep, so at night they go to a safe place to rest called a roost. This could include sheltered bushes & tree branches, or inside the cavities of trees & buildings.
It’s important to remember however that bird behavior can change significantly depending on what species you’re studying, and even the time of year you’re observing in.
For example during spring & fall migrations many birds will actually be flying under the cover of night, and of course nocturnal birds do all their roosting & sleeping activities during the day.
We really can gain a lot of insight into the world of birds by knowing how they relate to these daily and nightly cycles.
So in this article, let’s explore some common scenarios you’ll encounter and how you can actually observe where birds are going at night!
Finding Roost Locations of Different Bird Species
Every bird species has their own unique way of preparing for night and settling into a roost.
So if you really want to know where birds are going at night, the best thing is to practice getting outside at dusk and actually follow birds around until they stop moving.
As you might imagine, this can be quite a challenging exercise to follow birds to their roosts!
However with the right approach, you can actually get some pretty fast success with this.
To make it easier, the biggest trick is to start by focusing on birds that have the most obvious roosting behaviors first.
Some birds like crows, starlings and swifts have roosting habits that are incredibly easy to identify and follow, even for beginners.
These are species of birds who gather together in large communal groups around dusk to sleep in a common location.
These are the ideal birds to start training your sense for roosting behavior because it’s really quite obvious once you know what to look for.
Other birds like sparrows, goldfinches & chickadees are much more subtle about their nightly roosting habits.
These species prefer to sleep in smaller groups that don’t attract quite so much attention.
I once discovered a pair of juncos were sleeping under the cover of my front porch every night. They would wait until the last light of dusk and then quietly tuck in to perch on a vine growing across the ceiling tiles.
This level of subtlety takes a lot more practice so start with the most obvious birds first, and then you can gradually work down to the more secretive ones.
Crow Roosting Habits
Crows are really the perfect bird to help you start recognizing roosting behavior at night, especially if you’re a beginner.
As the sun is setting, simply look for groups of crows flying overhead and pay careful attention to which direction they’re headed.
Crow roost are often well known to locals who live in the area because they’re so loud and gregarious, and become increasingly difficult to ignore as you get closer to the center.
Simply follow the crowd (and the noise!) and you’ll be able to find the roost.
This type of activity is especially common to observe during winter when crow roosts can sometimes include hundreds or even thousands of crows all flying towards the same location.
As day fades into night, crows will gather in trees or scattered around on lawns… until eventually they move into their final resting place for the night.
An important thing to realize about crows is they often have dramatically different roosting habits during winter compared to summer.
During winter, crows in the city have been observed gathering to sleep in groups of hundreds or even thousands of crows.
In summer, crows will be sleeping in smaller family groups spread out across the landscape so their roosts are often more tricky to locate.
This is a great time of year to test your skills at following crows to find where they’re going at night!
Other Communal Bird Roosts: Starlings, Pigeons, Swifts…
Generally speaking, all birds that spend the night as a community have roosting habits that are fairly easy to locate and identify.
Communal sleepers include birds like starlings, pigeons & swifts.
These birds are a little bit more challenging to follow at dusk than crows, mainly because they’re smaller and overall less noisy.
However, any large group of birds gathering around sunset through to dusk is still fairly easy to spot if you keep your eyes open.
Pigeons (also known as rock doves) are easy because they tend to sleep in pretty much the same places they hang out during the day. You can find pigeons roosting on rock walls or sides of buildings.
Starlings and chimney swifts can often be seen making incredible displays of acrobatics and flight coordination before finally settling into their roosts.
One of the best tips I can give you here is to find an open habitat where you can see for long distances (like a big hill, meadow or body of water).
Simply choose a sit spot where you can look out over this location as the night closes in and watch the sky for large flocks of birds. Then it’s just a matter of following them to the roost.
You can do it, and it’s good fun!
American Robin Roosting Behavior
The American Robin is another great teacher of bird roosting habits, partially because it’s such a common bird across North America.
The extra challenge with following robins at dusk is that many of them live and sleep in mixed landscapes & forested habitats.
This is a very different environment from that used by starlings, swifts & pigeons, who tend to occupy landscapes with fairly good long distance visibility.
Robins provide a middle ground because they’re still communal sleepers, but it’s much more challenging to watch them from far away.
Robins are also known to go through a phase of hyper-vigilance at dusk when they make a lot of noise and flighty behavior that can be extremely confusing.
Sometimes all this noise & activity is actual alarm behavior directed towards predators like owls, but it’s also often just a precursor to their roosting time.
If you want a great challenge, try following the frantic sounds of these robins all the way to their nightly roost at dusk!
This is definitely more challenging than finding starling & crow roosts, but you’ll be able to do it with enough space to go off trail and follow through the forest. (Just make sure you know how to navigate safely as it gets dark!)
Q: But How Do Birds Actually Sleep?
Something else you might be wondering with all this is how do birds actually sleep?
This is a common question because it’s not like birds can just lie down and rest their head on a pillow or mossy log… so how does sleep actually work for them?
Well, the answer to this question is pretty darn cool if you’re an animal nerd like me.
Birds sleep in a perched position!
The anatomy of bird legs are designed so that squatting down on a branch causes the muscles in their feet to relax, which causes the toes to squeeze and secure their position.
For most humans it would be pretty difficult to sleep while squatting down in an upright position, but for birds this is actually their most relaxed and stable posture!
Human toes need to contract with muscle tension in order to grasp objects like a branch, but bird feet work the opposite way… relaxation causes their toes to grasp tightly so they can fall asleep without worries of falling.
Q: Why Do I Hear Birds Chirping At 2am?
If you hear birds chirping at 2am, this is often caused by long daylight conditions during late spring & early summer in northern latitudes.
Ornithologists have found that birds instinct to sing and breed is at least partially triggered by the amount of daylight birds are getting.
Around the summer solstice here in Nova Scotia, I’ve heard Song Sparrows singing in the middle of the night even while everything is completely dark, so it does happen!
If you’re very far north, pay attention to what time your sunrise happens because many birds simply begin their dawn chorus around first light, which can be extremely early in some places.
Further south, Mockingbirds are well known for singing all night long. It’s also possible that you’re hearing a nocturnal bird like a whip-poor-will or chuck-will’s-widow! Or is it possible you’re hearing an owl?
Q: Can Birds Fly At Night?
Another common thing I hear from folks is something like,
I was out camping and I’m pretty sure there were birds flying overhead at night. What’s up with this?
This is often a shocking or at least curious experience if you’ve never seen (or heard) it before.
However, it is fairly common for some bird species to fly at night, especially during the spring & fall migrations.
Many birds choose to migrate at night because the winds tend to be calmer, and there’s less predator activity under the cover of darkness.
And during all times of year, remember that most locations do also have at least a few nocturnal bird species.
Of course, we can’t do a thorough exploration of where birds go at night without talking about the fascinating lives of nocturnal birds.
Nocturnal birds include owls, nightjars, woodcocks, and night herons.
And as you’ve probably already guessed, nocturnal birds do everything opposite to their diurnal (daytime active) counterparts.
With nocturnal species, it’s common for them to be out flying, hunting, singing, breeding, nesting & raising their young, all under the cover of night.
In this case, nocturnal birds do all their sleeping & roosting activities during the daytime instead of the night.
One of the big caveats to always bear in mind when comparing nocturnal & diurnal birds is these are just general tendencies rather than exact rules.
Always take into account the different seasons and how far north you are.
Generally, the further north you’re located during summer, the more likely you are to see nocturnal bird activity during the day simply because there isn’t enough time to get everything done at night.
Go Observe Birds At Night!
So there you have our nature mentoring deep dive into exploring where birds go at night.
I’ve given you some great observation challenges you can use to actually start tracking down the night time roosts of crows, starlings, pigeons, swifts & robins.
I hope this has given you some fun ideas to ponder on the fascinating lives and behavior of our feathered bird friends.
As always, the most important thing now is taking these lessons into nature and asking, what are YOU observing?
I would encourage you to give yourself this opportunity to spend some time outside around dusk and really pay attention to what your local birds are telling you.
I look forward to hearing your stories!