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How Do Birds Sleep? Probably Not Like You Think

Updated: Dec 29, 2023

When you think of birds sleeping the night away, do you picture them cozied up in their nests? It would seem to make sense that they would tuck themselves into their nests for the night, but that's not usually the case.

A great horned owl sleeping on a tree branch.
A great horned owl sleeping on a tree branch. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Birds only use their nests to incubate their eggs and raise their young, so they only sleep in their nests during nesting season, when there are eggs or babies to keep warm. At other times of the year, many birds sleep in a roosting spot, often using the same spot day after day, or night after night in the case of many birds.

Different types of birds sleep in different ways. Many songbirds will perch themselves in a spot safe from predators. Others may tuck themselves away in a tree cavity. Some birds, like woodpeckers, cling to tree trunks to roost, and ducks and other waterfowl can often sleep on both land and water.

Perching while sleeping may seem tricky, but birds can do it with very little risk of falling. They are able to stay perched while asleep because when they put weight on their feet their leg muscles tighten, causing each foot to clench around the branch or whatever they are perched on. When they go to sleep, birds like songbirds will usually fluff out their feathers and turn their heads backward so they can tuck their beaks into their feathers.


Words to know

Clench: To contract or tighten part of the body.

Incubate: To keep eggs warm to bring them to hatching.

Nocturnal: Active at night.

Roosting: To settle for rest or sleep.


It helps, too, that birds aren't exactly deep sleepers compared to human standards. They might take hundreds of short naps in a day, being awoken each time by things like the weather, a predator or a nearby bird or animal.

Some birds do what's called unihemispheric slow-wave sleep. This allows birds to sleep with one eye open, keeping half their brain alert while they are asleep. This state of being half awake and half asleep is useful because the birds can react quickly to threats while still getting rest. Some birds are better at this kind of sleep than others, including ducks, peregrine falcons and Eurasian blackbirds.

Some birds even rely on unihemispheric slow-wave sleep while migrating. That's right — they take short naps in flight! Many birds complete long journeys on their way to and from their breeding grounds, and these trips do not leave a lot of time for rest. Birds such as the magnificent frigatebird, which lives along the southern U.S. coast, can take short "naps" on their long flights over the ocean. On land, the birds can sleep as much as 12 hours per day, but they usually get less than an hour of sleep per day while soaring over the ocean.

An eastern whip-poor-will asleep on a branch.
An eastern whip-poor-will asleep on a branch. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Of course, not all birds sleep at night. Nocturnal birds like owls and whip-poor-wills hunt at night, so they are up and about when much of the rest of the bird world is trying to catch some shut eye. Adult owls sleep much like other perching birds, hidden away in a sheltered spot and grasping onto a branch. Baby owls, though, sleep a little differently. They still use their talons to tightly grip onto a branch, but they lie down on their stomachs when they sleep.


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