Where Do Garden Birds Sleep At Night?

At this time of year, our garden birds are our constant companions through the daylight hours, There was plenty of singing going on outside my window at 4 am this morning as it started to get light. And yesterday at dusk I watched a flock of starlings wheeling overhead, looking for a place to rest for the night. But where were they going? Where do our garden birds sleep at night?

The Challenges of Getting a Good Night’s Sleep

Our birds often look as though life is great fun for them, that’s part of why we enjoy having them around. But in reality life is tough for birds, and sleeping is one of the most dangerous parts of the day.

When birds rest they are at their most vulnerable to predators and the cold; so getting some rest takes careful planning and different species have different strategies for getting some shut-eye in safety.

Finding The Right Spot

Most of our garden birds (with the exception of nocturnal owls) are diurnal, they are active during daylight hours and rest at night.

Though our garden birds spend their days flitting through low branches, hopping around the lawn and hanging off our feeders this isn’t where they choose to spend their nights. All of these places would be far too exposed to weather and predators to offer a good nights sleep. so where do the birds go at night?

birds prefer to sleep high in the treetops, out of reach of predators

Most small birds choose to spend the night high in the tree canopy. often perching as close to the trunk of the tree as they can.

This gives them protection from the elements and vibration through the tree will warn them of the approach of any predators.

Alternatively, they will look for cavities, nooks and crannies to roost in. They might choose a hole in a tree trunk, a space in a building, or even a disused nesting box or birdhouse.

Sleep can be a dangerous time for birds, due to danger from cold and predators. They have developed a whole host of strategies for coping Click To Tweet

Though some birds like gulls will fly a good distance from their feeding grounds to sleep each night most of our garden birds sleep in the same areas where they spend their days. so they are still around at night, even if we can’t see them!

Getting Comfy for the Night

The sleeping position that many of our garden birds choose looks darn right uncomfortable and like a disaster waiting to happen to us humans, but actually, it works beautifully for the birds.

The passerines, or songbirds like thrushes, tits. finches and sparrows, like to perch to sleep. They will fluff up their feathers, tuck one leg up close to their body and tuck their heads into the feathers on their backs.

tucking their beaks into their feathers helps birds conserve body heat.

The head tucking means that they are breathing in warm air from amongst their feathers, so loosing less body heat during the night.

But what about sleeping standing on one leg? Won’t they fall? No, quite the opposite in fact. Standing on one leg forces weight down through the leg muscles and makes the bird’s claw close in a vice-like grip on to the perch, so little chance of falling, And as both legs are featherless and lose heat quickly, keeping one tucked close to the body helps the bird to keep warm.

Although this is the sleeping position for most of our garden birds, not all birds sleep like this. Ducks often sleep floating on the water, and some breeds of parrot sleep hanging upside down like bats!

grebe sleeping on the water
grebe sleeping on the water

Birds of a Feather

Many of our garden birds flock and roost together at night. There are a couple of very good reasons for this. Firstly warmth. A group of birds packed tightly together will keep much warmer than one tiny little bird sleeping all alone.

Secondly, many small birds tend to sleep in flocks because they can then take turns in staying awake and keeping watch for predators. Birds roosting in a flock tend to shuffle around during the night, so everyone gets to spend some time on the edges, and some time in the warm centre of the pack.

Generally, birds of the same species flock together. but in the cold of winter small birds of several different species may choose to huddle together for warmth.

Cold is a serious problem for small birds. They lose body heat and weight fast in cold weather and need to eat a lot to keep their energy levels up. Just at the time of year when there is often little food around.

Some birds like doves and pigeons are able to combat the cold by going into a state of shallow torpor, and lowering their metabolic rate so that they use less energy. It’s a bit like hedgehogs’ hibernation, but only last a few hours, rather than a few months.

The only potential downside to sleeping packed together in groups is that when lots of birds try to cram themselves into a small space, some may get crushed or smothered.

Sleeping With One Eye Open

Humans quickly start to suffer from a lack of sleep: we need to sleep for our brains to function properly. But scientists are starting to think that things are different for birds. The thinking now is that birds sleep when there’s nothing more useful to do. This idea is based on studies of birds who live near the poles, such as the Arctic Tern, who have several months of the year where the sun never sets. During these daylight months, these birds seem to get very little sleep and don’t suffer from it.

Similarly, many coastal wading birds can only feed at low tide. So they have evolved to sleep at high tide, when there’s nothing useful to do, and wake at low tide to feed, whatever time of the day or night that might be. They find their food through touch, so feeding in the dark doesn’t bother them.

Even some birds such as our blackbirds, who are active during the day and sleep at night don’t rest their whole brains like we do. They have an amazing ability called unihemispheric slow-wave sleep. this means that they switch one half of the brain off, whilst keeping the other active and can literally sleep with one eye open.

This helps in keeping watch for predators. It’s also thought to be what allows migratory birds like swifts to sleep in flight, and in some cases fly for 200 days non-stop.

Do Birds Sleep In Their Nests?

The idea of birds getting comfy and cosy in their nests for the night is cute but inaccurate. Our garden birds generally don’t sleep in nests.

The only exception to this is when they have eggs or chicks to care for. Then the adults will sleep in the nest to keep their young warm.

The Calm Before the Storm

Have you ever notice how, just as the birds stop singing at night they also go silent and disappear when bad weather is coming? So that just before a storm everything goes eerily quiet?

fluffed up feathers help birds stay warm

There’s a good reason for this. Birds are much better at sensing what is happening with the weather than we are. And whilst feathers are pretty good at keeping out the rain there is only so much wet weather they can take.

So when they sense bad weather on the way our garden birds will usually head for the shelter of their night-time roosts, or even fly away, out of the path of the storm altogether.

Birds Resting Quietly In Your Garden

So we’ve seen that whilst you may not see or hear your garden birds at night they are likely to still be close by. Though most birds don’t rest in the same place each and every night and have a choice of roosting sites they will all tend to be close to where the bird has spent the day feeding.

Sleep can be a dangerous time for birds, due to danger from cold and predators. They have developed a whole host of strategies for coping and we can help by providing plenty of bird boxes, food and water – and keeping the cat in at night!

Thanks for reading! We hope you’ve found this article interesting. Do you have questions or suggestions? We’d love to hear them. Leave us a comment below.

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4 Responses

  1. As usual, the article contains fascinating info, I always read all the stuff Clare writes and I’m learning so much about our wildlife. The bit about the blackbird being able to switch half it’s brain down and literally sleep with one eye open is amazing! Could you possibly answer a question I have? I always put some food out for the bird each morning, I love watching the pigeons! This morning a pigeon came for some food but it didn’t look “right” it was exceptionally fatter than all the rest and looked so uncomfortable that it even lowered itself down so it was lying down as it ate the food. When it did eventually fly away it looked like it was finding it hard to gain some height. Do you think it was ill? Could it have been about to lay eggs, that’s why it looked so fat? I would be interested to know what you think.

    1. I’m no expert but yes I believe the pigeon was sick, very sick. I’ve seen this many times in our garden and orchard, they fluff their feathers out (why I don’t know) and look generally unwell. They often hang about not going very far or moving around much and seem to get weaker and weaker until often sadly we find a body. I’ve seen it too in other birds although not as often, whether they are sick or have just come to the end of their life I don’t know. I quite like to see the pigeons in the garden too although I must say they can become a bit troublesome, sitting or hanging on bird feeders far too small for them, but then I guess they too are just trying to eke out a living just like all the other garden birds. Sorry can’t be more specific but hope my tiny bit of info helps.

    2. Hi Jacqueline,

      I think Jane has it right I’m afraid, sounds like a sick pigeon sadly. We have quite a few pigeons visit us and one or two seem to die each year.

      Best

      Clare

  2. Many of our local birds go to the zoo to sleep. There are lots of trees for them as many of the animals are shut away in their quarters for the night. Obviously there is plenty of water available for them to drink and sometimes food to be had as well.
    A couple of years ago, the zoo took delivery of a pair of Sri Lankan Leopards. The Leopards have a large paddock for a home which includes a great stand of trees for shade and of course, a secure area where they are locked in at night and during paddock cleaning duties. For their first week at the zoo, the leopards would not go into the night accommodation, refusing all temptation including ever larger hunks of fresh meat.
    The staff became worried about the cats, thinking they must be very hungry indeed by now but finally, one night they both went in to the sleeping quarters and started tucking into the food provided. The staff then went into the enclosure with barrows and shovels to clean up a week’s worth of droppings. That was when they discovered what the leopards had been eating. Piles of beaks and claws were strewn around under the larger trees. You can just imaging the fat pigeons going back to the regular overnight roost only to have large claws suddenly swat them into hungry jaws. Only when the Leopards got bored with pigeons did they decide it was time to oblige the humans and make their way into the secure sleeping area. It was a long time before birds used those trees as an overnight roost again.

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