Noctural Birds: What You Need To Know

What kind of nocturnal birds are active at night?

How can you identify and observe birds at night?

Here’s our must-read guide to the eerie and fascinating nocturnal birds that come out at night…

What it Means to be a Nocturnal Bird

As humans, we generally function in the day and recuperate at night. As darkness falls the world doesn’t seem as hectic. 

Just because we’re cuddled up cosy in our homes or walking along an otherwise deserted street, doesn’t mean that the nighttime world isn’t thriving. 

Nocturnal birds, such as owls, nightjars, and kiwis sleep during the day and come out at night.

They generally aren’t comfortable in daylight, which is why if you see a nocturnal bird in the day they’re most likely to appear mellow and still.

This is their way of going unnoticed by possible threats. 

Identifying Nocturnal Birds

Nocturnal birds usually differ significantly in their appearance compared to daytime birds. Here is a tick list to help you determine if a bird is nocturnal or not.

Do they have dull plumage? Nocturnal birds commonly have black, brown and gray feathers so that they can blend into the night.

Do they have dark patterned feathers? These camouflage patterns help nocturnal birds to blend into their surroundings during the daytime hours.  

Are their eyes huge? The larger a bird’s eyes then the better they are at collecting what little light there is in the dark and using it to see in the night. 

See Also: Bird Tongue Facts We Bet You Don’t Already Know!

How to Observe Nocturnal Birds?

If you want to have a go at observing nocturnal birds then there are a few things you need to do to make this easier. 

Map out a route of where you plan on going, make sure you take a flashlight so your path is clear. It’s best to equip this with a red lens so that the light doesn’t startle away the birds.

Investing in a pair of special night vision binoculars will be useful for spotting birds and for getting a better look without disturbing them. 

Staying in one place usually brings with it more chance of seeing nocturnal birds. Seeking out an owl may be harder, listen out for their call and where possible head in the same direction. 

The Different Species

Barn Own (left), Nightjars (center), and Nightingales (right)

There are many night-dwelling birds out there. The fascinating creatures are rulers of the night and they know exactly the best ways to thrive in the darkness. 

The Barn Owl’s scientific name is Tyto Alba, they have amazing hearing, sharp talons and are capable of finding their prey hidden beneath leaves and snow. 

Nightjars have the scientific name Caprimulgus Europaeus, these little birds have the virtually silent flight. They like to steal milk from goats and munch on moths and insects. 

Nightingales have the scientific name Luscinia Megarhynchos, these cute birds sing at night to attract a mate. 


Some scientists believe that birds evolved from dinosaurs, while others believe that they’ve evolved from ancient birds. 

Wherever birds have originated from there’s no doubting that these feathered friends rule the skies. 

Nocturnal birds have evolved and adapted to thrive in their surroundings.

They commonly have large eyes, amazing hearing and dull-colored plumage to help them blend into the night. 

The Behavior of Nocturnal Birds

Nocturnal birds act differently to their daytime cousins. This is because thriving in a nighttime world to a daytime one requires different behavior.

So, what is it that makes our favorite nighttime flyers so good at owning the night?

Behavior Changes and Adaptation

Most nocturnal birds rely on their sight for catching prey, not only do they have large eyes and wide pupils but they also have a reflective light in their retina called a tapetum. 

This tapetum takes any light that passes through the retina and reflects it back, which acts as a sort of mirror of light to help the birds see in the dark. 

Their hearing is so good that they usually hear their prey long before they see them. 

Crepuscular Birds

This type of birds doesn’t just come out at night, instead, they’re commonly seen out-and-about at dust. Some types of crepuscular birds are songbirds, hummingbirds and in some areas the Barn Owl. 

Most crepuscular birds have adapted to be this way as they find it easier to track their prey when there is still some light.

The word crepuscular is derived from the Latin word for “twilight.”

Many species of animals are at their most active during the dawn and dusk hours, this can be down to there being less chance of predators and a more manageable temperature. 

Food Consumption

Most of the prey that nocturnal birds feed on come out at night because they spend the day hiding from diurnal (daytime) birds. 

Owls aren’t that fussy on what they eat, they tend to grab whatever’s about, such as insects, fish, reptiles, birds and small mammals. 

Owls can’t chew so they swallow their food whole. They regurgitate pellets of the parts of their prey that they can’t digest, such as bones, fur, and teeth. 

How Nocturnal Birds Interact Together

Owls are solitary creatures that like to hunt alone and they usually do this away from their nesting area. If you’re lucky enough to see a group of owls together this is called a parliament. 

Although they prefer to hunt alone owls do usually mate for life. These loyal birds care for their partner and are great parents to their owlets. 

Nightingale’s sing to attract a mate, and well, they sing a lot. These sociable birds love to communicate with each other and make their presence known.

They can produce over 1000 different songs, which is impressive in comparison to the blackbirds mere 100 songs. 

Lifestyle and Health

We may not see nocturnal birds all that often but this doesn’t mean we should overlook them. 

With the destruction of many forest areas and pollution, nocturnal birds are feeling the effects. 

Environmental changes mean that some nocturnal birds have had to alter their behavior. 

In some areas, Barn Owl now hunts when there is still some light in the sky as it’s easier for them to find food. 

The Physical Characteristics of Nocturnal Birds

These birds come alive at night, this is their happy place and they know how to thrive in it. 

Nocturnal birds have many attributes that contribute to them being amazing night dwellers. 


If nocturnal birds were bright red, blue and green like some daytime birds then they wouldn’t be able to go unnoticed in the night. 

Many nocturnal birds have dull plumage colored black, brown and gray. Although they’re lacking in color, they are equipped to blend into their surroundings. 

Heavily mottled patterns on their plumage also help them to blend into their surroundings, especially during the daytime, as many nocturnal birds sleep in the open. 

Eye Structure

Nocturnal birds have large eyes, which help them catch whatever light they can find and reflect it. 

Owls have binocular vision, which means they can hunt out an object with both eyes at the same time. 

Woodcock’s Eye

They can see objects in 3 dimensions, have 3 eyelids and can rotate their heads up to 270 degrees. 

The woodcock has large eyes that are set far back on either side of its head.

This means they have panoramic vision and can see any potential prey both in front of them and behind. 


Nightingale’s Nest

The places where nocturnal birds choose to call home varies depending on their species. 

Some of them have a nest that they take pride in and others burrow underground to hide from their prey.

Some birds such as the Common Nighthawk take advantage of their camouflaged feathers and perch on a tree branch during the daytime.  

Where They Prefer to Live

Owls can make many places their home, such as trees, holes, barns and caves. Unlike other birds, owls don’t fly to warmer climates in the winter. 

Little Penguin at Night

The Little Penguin is the only species of penguin that is nocturnal.

These adorable blue and white birds spend their nights foraging and swimming in the sea. 

In the daytime, they sleep in their ground burrows so that they’ll be safe from predators.

The Potoo is an unusual looking bird that is known for its yellow bulging eyes. Its mottled dark plumage allows it to go unnoticed by predators as it roosts on a tree branch during the day.

See Also: Bird Symbols: What Are The Spiritual Meanings Of Birds?

FAQs – The Short Answers

Have you still got loads of questions about nocturnal birds? Don’t worry, instead read on, as below I answer the most frequently asked nocturnal bird-related questions. 

Question 1 – What is a Nocturnal Bird?

Common Nighthalk

These are species of birds that come out at night.

Birds like owls, nighthawks, and nightjars are predominantly nocturnal and they sleep during the day and come out at night to hunt. 

Some birds aren’t usually nocturnal but they use the nighttime to carry out certain tasks, such as migration. Some birds that migrate at night are warblers and thrushes. 

Many small birds migrate at night because the air is cooler, less turbulent and there are fewer predators about. 

Question 2 – What Birds are Active at Night?

When we think of nocturnal birds, owls immediately spring to mind. In fact, there are lots of other types of nocturnal birds out there besides owls. 

Flightless Kiwi (left), Frogmouth (center), and Night-heron (right)

Kiwis are mainly found in New Zealand. These flightless come out to feed in the safety of the night and they’re known for their unusual beaks. 

Frogmouths are related to the nightjars, they’re found in Asia and Australia. They come out at night to hunt for insects, which they catch in their frog-like gape. 

Night-herons are medium-sized birds. They have amazing vision, which comes in handy when they’re waiting by the riverside to ambush their prey.  

Question 3 – What do Nocturnal Birds Eat?

This depends on the species of birds. Nightjars like to feed on beetles, spiders and whatever other insects they can find. 

Kiwis have nostrils at the end of their beaks which help them seek out seeds, grubs, and worms. 

Barn Owls mainly eat mice, shrews, and voles while Screech Owls prefer insects. 

Question 4 – How do Nocturnal Birds Hunt?

Nocturnal birds are remarkable hunters. They use the darkness to their advantage and have the ability to sneak up on their prey almost silently.

Their heightened senses mean that nocturnal birds have remarkable hearing and sharp eyesight. They’re also experts at blending into their surroundings. 

Question 5 – What are the Night Activities of Nocturnal Birds?

Nocturnal birds spend the nighttime hours hunting for food, grooming their feathers, courting and building their nests.

During the daytime hours, they roost and sleep. 

Nocturnal birds have the same basic instincts and behavior as diurnal birds do, they just carry out these activities at night instead of during the day. 

They’re kind of like vampires, only without the bloodsucking.

Question 6 – Why are Birds Noisy at Night?

Normally birds chirp to attract mates. Although it’s more common to hear birds sing during the day; especially first thing in the morning, some birds can also be heard at night.

Mockingbirds aren’t nocturnal birds but during the spring and summer months, they’re usually the bird we hear chirping away into the night.

Unexpected noises, such as thunder, fireworks, and earthquakes may cause birds to start singing. 

Robins don’t like to miss out, so sometimes they will stay up past their bedtime to join in singing along with a nightingale. 

An Overview of Nocturnal Birds

Mountain Scops Owl

From a Barn Owl to a kiwi, nocturnal birds come in many different shapes and sizes.

They hunt different prey, live in different habitats and make different sounds.

The one thing they all share in common is that they’re active during the night. 

Nocturnal birds flourish in their surroundings and really are the rulers of the night. 

I hope that you now know everything you could possibly need to know about these fascinating birds

Julian Goldie - Owner of

Julian Goldie

I'm a bird enthusiast and creator of Chipper Birds, a blog sharing my experience caring for birds. I've traveled the world bird watching and I'm committed to helping others with bird care. Contact me at [email protected] for assistance.