6 Birds That Fly at Night

Written by Patrick Sather
Updated: January 3, 2022
Image Credit Jim Cumming/Shutterstock.com
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The vast majority of birds are diurnal, meaning that they are active during the day and sleep at night. On the other hand, nocturnal birds stay awake at night to hunt, fly and socialize. According to estimates, well over 70% of birds classify as diurnal, with the remaining 30% identified as nocturnal. Nocturnal birds come in a wide range of shapes, sizes, and dispositions, and live in myriad different environments. You can find them throughout the world and in a variety of habitats. While the vast majority hunt for prey, a few also forage for vegetation at night. In addition, those that breed in colonies may sing songs to each other until the early hours of the morning. If you stay up late, you could potentially see one of these nocturnal birds in flight. That said, what are some different birds that fly at night? 

In this article, we’ll discuss 6 different groups of nocturnal birds. We’ll explore where you can find these birds, what makes them unique, and why they stay active at night. That way, the next time you stay up late, maybe you’ll get a chance to spot one of these night flyers. So, get ready to take off, as we take a look at 6 birds that fly at night. 

#6: Petrel

Tiniest Birds-Wilsons Storm Petrel
Wilson’s Storm Petrel in flight over the Atlantic ocean surface off Madeira.

Agami Photo Agency/Shutterstock.com

Petrels belong to four different families in the order Procellariiformes. Groups in each family include the storm, diving, fulmarine, and gadfly petrels, as well as prions, shearwaters, and albatrosses. Also known as tubenoses due to their tubular nostrils, petrels live and hunt in the open ocean. In fact, they only return to land to breed, which they primarily do on coasts and on small, isolated islands. While some species only fly during the day, a few rank among the birds that fly at night. For example, during the summer, storm petrels will hunt at night for crustaceans, fish, and squid. In addition to finding food, hunting at night also means that petrels avoid predation from large raptors. Back in their colonies, petrels will call out to each other at night from the safety of their nests. These cries may be part of courtship rituals or serve other social functions. 

#5: Nightjar

Animals With Camouflage: Nightjar
A nightjar relies on its excellent camouflage to avoid daytime predators.

The term nightjar refers to a group of 79 birds that fly at night or the hours around twilight. Nightjar also refers to an additional 10 species known more commonly as nighthawks in the Americas. Except for Antarctica and some inhospitable islands and habitats, you can find nightjars around the world. They prefer to live in grasslands with intermediate ground cover, as they typically build their nests on the ground. On average, most nightjars possess short legs and bills, but long wings, and dark, mottled plumage. Unlike most birds, which perch atop of a branch, some nightjars perch along a branch. This tactic helps to conceal them from predators during the day. At night and around twilight, nightjars get active and set off to hunt for insects, their primary prey. They hunt by sight and can catch insects in mid-air, which makes their nighttime flights all the more impressive. 

#4: Killdeer

killdeer standing on the beach
Killdeer hunt at night so they can avoid predators, which helps, given that their lack of a flight instinct means they don’t fly away when predators approach.

The killdeer is a species of plover commonly found throughout the United States, Mexico, and Canada. It gets its name from the distinctive, high-pitched vocalizations it makes, which can occasionally sound like the words “kill-deer.” They feature unique plumage, made up of a brown back, white belly, and two black bands across the breast. Killdeers live in varied environments depending on the season. While technically wading birds, killdeers do not necessarily spend all of their time near water. For example, although they often hang out in wetlands, during the breeding season, they build scrape nests in open fields. However, during the non-breeding season, you may see a killer alongside other birds that fly at night. They become active at night during the non-breeding to hunt for insects and forage for fruits and seeds. By hunting at night, they also gain the advantage of additional protection from predators. 

#3: Night Heron

Animals that live near volcanoes – Black-crowned heron
Night herons become more active at night and will stand still at the water’s edge to lure in prey.

Jeff W. Jarrett/Shutterstock.com

The night herons is the name given to a group of seven extant species of medium-sized herons that fly at night. While sometimes used for all of the birds, the term can also specifically refer to the black-crowned night heron. Depending on the species, you can find them all over including North and South America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. Most night herons feature a short neck and legs as well as dark gray or brown plumage. A medium-sized species, most measure between 22 to 25 inches long. When not feeding, they often rest on platform nests either on the ground or in trees. At night, they get more active as they set out to hunt for food. Their diet primarily consists of fish, crustaceans, frogs, and insects. To catch their prey, they stand still at the water’s edge and then lash out to ambush their unsuspecting target. 

#2: Mockingbird

northern mockingbird perched by a white flower
Northern mockingbirds have an uncanny ability to imitate the songs of other birds.

Steve Byland/Shutterstock.com

The mockingbird gets its name from its habit of mimicking the vocalizations of some birds, insects, and other animals. Overall, there exist 17 mockingbird species, although the northern mockingbird is the only one commonly found in the United States. On average, they measure around 7 to 11 inches long and feature dark gray, brown, or blue plumage. Northern mockingbirds primarily subsist on insects, although they will also eat fruits during the winter. As songbirds, mockingbirds can sing all day as well as all night long. Typically, only unmated males sing late at night and do so in order to try to find a mate. You can occasionally hear these little birds that fly at night if you listen closely to their varying vocalizations. During their lifetime, some mockingbirds can learn to imitate up to 200 individual sounds. This ability makes them the closest thing to nature’s little tape recorders. 

#1: Owl

veil owl in flight
Owls soar silently through the night before swooping down on unsuspecting prey.

Perhaps the most well-known birds that fly at night, owls belong to two families which include over 200 species. You can break down owls into the true owls, or Strigidae, and the barn owls, or Tytonidae. Owls range throughout every continent on Earth other than Antarctica and live in a wide variety of habitats. While primarily solitary, a few owls live in groups, called a parliament. Most owls stand upright and feature wide heads, keen hearing and eyesight, and sharp talons. Almost all owls hunt at night and prey on various different foods including insects, small mammals, birds, and some fish. They sport feathers that make them well-adapted for silent flight, which helps them to ambush their prey. In addition, many owls make unique vocalizations that you can hear long into the night. Their distinctive “hoots” serve as a warning to would-be intruders or predators, or as communication between mates. 

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