We are accustomed to seeing birds around all throughout the day, flying, sitting in trees, or pecking at the lawn, but where do they all go to sleep at night? Do they all have nests they return to? Do they just huddle up on the ground? You never see them resting in trees or shrubbery at night so where do they go? Certainly, they must also have to find safe, protected places so that the night predators can’t find them while they rest.
The reality is that birds sleep in different places and ways, depending on the species. Water birds do not sleep in the same places that woodland birds do. Flocking birds sleep in groups and solo birds may just nestle up to a tree trunk to rest. It all depends on the bird and even the season.
Nesting vs. Roosting
Another name for bird sleeping is roosting. Roosting refers to a bird’s crouching down and resting or sleeping, during the day or night. But did you know that roosting is not the same thing as nesting? Birds only nest when they are preparing for laying, incubating eggs, or protecting chicks. This is why you don’t see birds randomly sleeping in nests everywhere. They mostly only sleep in nests when they have eggs or babies.
How Birds Sleep
How do birds sleep so that they are safe from predators or inclement weather? Birds have the unique ability to sleep with only half their brain at a time. This means that when birds sleep, half of their brain can stay awake and alert to the presence of danger or changes in the weather. This is called unihemispheric slow-wave sleep. This convenient form of sleeping also allows birds to sleep or rest while they are flying. This is particularly useful for migratory species or birds that have to spend most of their days in the air.
Now that we know what roosting is and how birds can sleep safely, let’s look at some places where various types of birds like to bed for the night.
Flocking species like the red-winged blackbird perhaps have it the easiest when it comes to sleeping in safety. Large flocks will roost all together in the same area. This can be in treetops, an open field, or even a lawn. Roosting like this means there is safety in numbers since one bird can easily alert the others. In some flocks, a few birds will even intentionally stay fully awake and keep watch while the rest of the flock roosts.
Woodland species tend to sleep in thickets, treetops, and any dense foliage that will give them some coverage of safety. Birds who make cavity nests will also roost in holes in trees and stones. Some species are even known to roost communally in small groups for protection and for warmth. Cavity nesters include birds like wrens, nuthatches, and chickadees.
Most songbirds tend to perch on tree branches, individually or in small groups, close to the trunk of the tree. Being near the trunk of the tree can alert them via vibrations if a predator is getting close.
Grassland species do not have the benefit of having a bunch of foliage or coverage the way woodland birds do. Most grassland birds just have to hunker down in the grass facing downwind. They may roost communally or individually, though they always have to be alert to vibrations through the ground that would alert them to danger.
There are at least two kinds of water birds, the kind of birds that wade in the water and the kind that floats in the water. Wading birds like herons and egrets often sleep just standing in the water. They may also sleep on any available islands which can protect them from land predators. Being in or near the water allows water birds to feel and hear approaching danger quite well over the water. Floating species like ducks and geese sleep in flocks floating on top of the water. The size of the flock once again provides an extra layer of protection.
Birds of prey, also called raptors, do not generally need to fear most of the common predators as they are often quite large and imposing themselves. As long as they are off the ground, they are usually safe. Birds like eagles and hawks will sleep on high tree branches. Raptors like owls of course are awake at night, but during the day will sleep on tree branches or in tree cavities.
Other Places Birds May Sleep at Night
Birds will sleep anywhere they deem safe and sheltered. This can include buildings, eaves, porches, sheds, and other manmade structures. Birds will also roost in empty birdhouses. Some bird lovers will also construct roosting boxes specifically so that birds can sleep safely at night.
Depending on the species, this can vary quite a bit. Birds that fly in flocks are well-equipped to sleep in safety. Some non-flocking birds will create small communities for the benefit of safety while sleeping. Other birds just find places to snuggle down in that are as hidden away as possible.
We do not notice birds sleeping at night because not only is it dark and hard to see, but birds intentionally find places that are hard to spot. But you can be sure, visible or not, birds are out there sleeping safely, watchful even in slumber.