Nocturnal birds: species, song & calls


I am particularly interested in garden wildlife which is why I did my Master's degree with a focus on "animal ecology". I am convinced that beneficial insects and wildlife are a sustainable and effective alternative to many of the products we use on our plants. I am also a passionate birdwatcher and rarely go for a walk without my binoculars.

Favourite fruit: kiwi, apple and redcurrant
Favourite vegetables: tomatoes and green beans

During the day, many birds can be observed. But some bird species are also or even exclusively on the move at night. Which birds are nocturnal? How do they behave? And what bird sings at night? We answer this below.

a barn owl mid-flight
Owls are classic nocturnal birds [Photo: Ondrej Prosicky/]

When we think of nocturnal birds, owls, the hunters of the night, come to mind first and foremost. Although few of us have actually set eyes on an owl, everyone is familiar with the somewhat ominous birds with big eyes. And although owls make up a large part of our domestic nocturnal birds, the more inconspicuous species are often forgotten. In fact, besides owls, there are other nocturnal bird species and even songbirds that light up the night with their lovely songs in the summer months.

Which birds are nocturnal?

The classic image of a nocturnal bird is embodied by the eagle owl (Bubo bubo), which with a wingspan of up to 170 cm is the largest representative of our native owls. But not all owls follow this example. The pygmy owl (Glaucidium passerinum), for example, is no larger than a starling at 15 to 19 cm.

pygmy owl on a branch
Pygmy owls are one of the smallest owl species [Photo: Szymon Bartosz/]

Other representatives of our native owls are also:

  • the tengmalm’s owl (Aegolius funereus)
  • the long-eared owl (Asio otus)
  • the tawny owl (Strix aluco)
  • the barn owl (Tyto alba)
  • the little owl (Athene noctua)

Another nocturnal bird family is that of the nightjars (Caprimulgidae), but only the European nightjar (Caprimulgus europaeus) is native to our area. The nightjar is a very inconspicuous bird, perfectly camouflaged by its bark-coloured feathers.

nighthawk with camoflauge markings
Compared to barn owls, nightjars are more inconspicuous night birds [Photo: CezaryKorkosz/]

Nocturnal birds: behaviour

The behaviour of nocturnal birds is not very different from that of their day-time relatives. Basically, they have simply chosen a temporal niche where they do not have to compete with the majority of other bird species for food or song time. Owls hunt at night – much like birds of prey during the day – and are equipped with certain advantageous features for this purpose, such as their large, light-sensitive eyes. Nightjars, on the other hand, feed on nocturnal insects, such as moths, and therefore do not compete with other insectivorous birds that feed primarily on diurnal insects.

Nocturnal songbirds also have the advantage that the quiet of the night carries their song a long way and it is not drowned out by the numerous bird calls of diurnal birds.

During the day, the nocturnal bird species sleep and are extremely rare to spot. Almost all night birds are exceedingly well camouflaged and move very little during the day, making them very inconspicuous. Nevertheless, they never sleep particularly deeply and are always ready to flee in case of danger.

What bird sings at night?

One of the few songbirds that actually sings at night is the nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos).

The small, inconspicuous bird has one of the loudest bird voices among songbirds. Its melodic song resounds from late evening to early morning during the breeding season and has inspired many a poet and writer.

Tip: Are you wondering why birds sing at all? You can find the answer in our article “Why do birds chirp?“.

nightingale perched on a branch
Nightingales are known for their beautiful nocturnal melodies [Photo: matushaban/]

Other bird calls that can still be heard after dusk are also those of the partridge (Perdix perdix), the corncrake (Crex crex), or the field warbler (Locustella naevia).

Another bird that can be heard at night is the tawny owl. However, no song but the characteristic call of the tawny owl can be perceived.

While the nightingale uses darkness for its song, most birds sleep during this time. Where birds sleep and how the animals protect themselves in winter from the cold of the night, you can learn in our dedicated article.

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