One of the greatest joys of birdwatching is developing your skills at recognizing the different calls and songs of various species of daytime birds. Most birdwatchers are familiar with the morning chatter and singing of their backyard birds. Some are expert at identifying their backyard visitors by their song. However, it may come as a surprise to find out there are several species of birds that sing at night. With less noise and commotion, and many other birds tucked in, these night birds enjoy singing in the dark. Spending a little time in your back yard at night is the best way to hone your ability to recognize which birds are singing at night.
See also: Birdsong Identification Tips
The Nightjar Family: Nocturnal Birds
Many species of birds that sing at night belong to the nightjar family of birds. Nightjars are nocturnal birds recognized and identified by their calls, which differ from one species to another. The calls begin just before dusk and often carry on into the dark of night for several hours. The nightjar can be physically recognized by several characteristics such as long wings, short legs, and very short bills. Typically, they are medium sized nocturnal birds. Nightjars are strictly insectivores—insect eating birds—and often catch their prey in flight.
Spend a few hours in your backyard looking for these common nighttime singers:
The whimsical mockingbird is quite the entertainer. Known for its ability to mimic a wide spectrum of sounds, this bird is a familiar nighttime sight. The northern mockingbird is found extensively through the United States. They sing a range of different tones and notes in specific sequences, playfully switching to a different tune to show off their vocal abilities. Look for them perched high in the trees in your backyard and throughout your neighborhood—they are common suburban and urban visitors.
Credit: Matt MacGillivray
The hermit thrush is said to be one of the most beautiful songbirds in North America. This medium sized reddish-brown thrush has a range that also includes Mexico and Canada depending on the season and migration. The thrush’s song is recognized by its mix of musical whistling and warbles. Easy to hear, it sings very late in the evening or very early in the morning. The best times of the year to hear the hermit thrush are early spring and late fall when this bird tends to sing later into the night.
A familiar and favorite backyard bird, the American robin’s song may be familiar to you as well. Though it’s a common early morning songbird, pollution in suburban areas has this thrush singing through the night. Spring is the ideal time to hear the American robin’s song—when this bird is actively courting its mate. Since this bird will stay in its range throughout the year, with some persistence and attention, you might also hear them active at night in fall and winter. The American robin is often spotted running and hopping across suburban lawns.
Bernard DUPONT [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]
The name of this bird says it all. The nightingale is one of the most prolific songbirds. The rather ordinary appearance belies the magnificent ability of this songbird. Its musical range includes more than 200 songs, and it isn’t uncommon for them to sing their complete repertoire in one night. Like the hesitant but gifted singer, the nightingale stays hidden in dense brush, but its rich sounds can be heard at great distances. Never tiring of singing, this songbird will continue for long periods of time, well after other songbirds have stopped.
Black-Crowned Night Heron
You will have to go beyond your back yard to hear this bird sing at night, but it’s a trip worth making. The nighttime sounds coming from the night heron may not be called lyrical, but their raspy, croaking calls are very distinctive and heard all night long. Since their habitats are swamps, marshes, and wetlands, there’s a definite mood in the air as you listen to them in the dark of night. Learning to identify their distinctive sounds is a fun addition to your birdwatching toolbox.
Credit: Jim Conrad
Don’t confuse this brightly colored yellow bird for a member of the warbler family. This is another bird that requires venturing out of your back yard to hear its nighttime song. It likes to stay hidden in the thickets, but you will be able to spot it by its blazing yellow throat and breast. Still, this bird will come out to sing a mingling of chirps, chatters, and raspy notes that won’t be missed. Plan for a night in spring. It’s your best chance to hear the yellow breasted chat sing.
See also: How Birds Change in Spring
Who? Who? Night Owls? No Surprise!
Birdwatchers, and most people, know the term ‘night owl’. It’s commonly used to describe people who are most active or productive at night. It’s probably no surprise to you that owls also sing at night. Whether these owls frequent your back yard, or you make a trip to their habitat, it’s worth the time—and a great addition to your life list.
The barred owl can be identified by its sad hooting, holding longer notes at the end of its song. They’re most typically found in the eastern United States. Though you will probably find this owl singing without accompaniment, during the courtship and breeding season you may be fortunate to hear pairs singing together. You may also hear a pair of barred owls calling to each other for hours at night. Look for the barred owl in large forests close to a water source.
The most common owl in North America, the barn owl can be found in numerous habitats, and even cities. Typically, they tend to favor low elevations in open areas like grasslands, deserts, and fields. They also seek out hollow trees and barn lots. Barn owls will also use nest boxes. Their most distinctive feature that makes them easily identifiable is their heart-shaped coloration of the face. Though not a melodious sound, the barn owl’s notably loud screech makes them unmistakable. Consider putting up a barn owl box to see if you can attract this owl to your yard at night.
Start Night Birdwatching Now
Late summer is the perfect time to switch up your birding routine from early morning to nighttime. You may miss the dawn chorus, but it’s an enjoyable way to birdwatch without having to deal with the intense heat of the sun. While most birdwatchers depend on their eyes to spot birds, going out after dark offers a way to hone another important sense used to identify birds. Step out into the dark and keep your ears peeled – there’s a whole other world of birds waiting for you to hear them.