Why Birds Stay Up Late
It can be an odd experience.
You’re out late at night when suddenly you hear the calls and chirps of birds flying above you. Not just a few of them either, but it's apparent that there’s a lot of birds overhead! What’s going on?
Shouldn’t these birds be asleep — the “early bird” and all that? Did they wake up early or get up late? Did something scare them? Are they going to smash into something? And where are they going, anyway?
It’s definitely a confusing phenomenon, but night-flying is actually more common than you think.
Why are birds flying and chirping at night?
The main reason: Migration
Believe it or not, many birds migrate during the evening hours rather than in broad daylight. The main reason? Predators.
Raptors such as hawks and eagles are a primary threat to most birds. The raptors use daytime thermals (strong winds that occur in the atmosphere due to temperature changes) to soar above prey.
By flying at night, smaller birds can use these same high-altitude airways without worrying about raptors on the hunt. This allows them to take advantage of the same routes that birds of prey will use, but because raptors need daytime thermal currents to soar, migrating at night helps smaller birds avoid contact with many predators.
So that answers why birds are traveling in the early morning hours, compared to during the daylight hours, but why are they making so much noise?
Well, imagine if you were in a room with your friends at night and the lights went out. To move around more easily, you would communicate with your friends to let them know where chairs and tables were located so that no one would walk into them. The same goes for birds. As birds travel for miles, they come across different locations, such as cities, where birds must watch out for tall buildings in the night sky. Additionally, rough weather at night can make it hard for a bird to stay on track, so communication is key to keeping the flock together.
What birds migrate at night?
According to the Chipper Woods Bird Observatory, several dozen types of birds will migrate at night when they need to. Among them are: Thrushes, thrashers, catbirds, wood warblers, vireos, kinglets, nuthatches, cuckoos, buntings, rails, woodcocks, tanagers, orioles, bobolinks, sparrows, ducks, geese, swans, swifts, swallows, and hummingbirds.
Speaking of hummingbirds, get an idea of the current hummingbird migration status with our hummingbird migration map.
How can I see night migrants?
Bird lovers – and astronomers – have found that one way to observe the high-altitude night migration is to train a telescope on the moon and watch for birds passing it in the night. Their silhouettes are usually visible for up to 2 miles with the right size telescope.
During these migration efforts, the birds usually fly at more than 1,500 feet above ground level, so with the exception of really tall buildings, they aren’t in much danger.
Even satellites can be set to pick up birds migrating at night. In the video below, you can see the movement of birds, bats, and insects. The moving blue clouds show migration from the zones where the satellite was recording. The black areas don’t represent a lack of birds, but rather an area where the satellites were not recording.
How can I help birds that migrate at night?
As an avid bird enthusiast, the best way to help these nighttime navigators is to increase your efforts! As stated above, these birds are doing their best to conserve as much energy as possible because they use so much of it to travel great distances. By providing them with ample amounts of the things they need, like fresh food and clean water, you can help keep them warm and full of energy for their travels.
Keeping them hydrated is a great way to keep their energy up. Make sure to keep your bird waterers filled with fresh water on a daily basis for wild birds to refresh themselves and to cool off after a hard night’s flight. Along with water, keep your bird feeders cleaned and stocked to supply ample amounts of high-fiber food, such as black oil sunflower seeds, will keep these birds chirping at night on their long travel!
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