Did you know . . . ?

Answers to questions about birds that you wondered, but never asked!

Where do birds sleep?

Most backyard songbirds are diurnal, which means they are active during the day and sleep at night. By in large, backyard songbirds including chickadees, cardinals and finch roost in a tree cavity, in a tree next to the trunk or in a dense shrub. Many clasp their feet to branches perching high in tree-tops to avoid predators. Some congregate in small flocks, which provide warmth and safety. Ducks sleep floating on water. Shorebirds sleep standing in water. Wild Turkeys roost in trees, which allows helps them evade ground feeding predators.

Some birds, including owls, are nocturnal, which means they actively hunt for prey at night. Hence the term “night owl.” Owls have amazing anatomy features that allow them to silently track and catch their prey including an acute sense of sight, asymmetric ears and a disc-like shaped face, which aids in detecting sound.

Owls typically roost alone. They readily roost in tree cavities as well as man-made nesting boxes.

Sleeping Great Horned Owl
Sleeping Great Horned Owl

How do birds find their way as they migrate?

Millions of birds migrate to and from breeding grounds and wintering grounds. Migration is thought to be triggered by several things including the number of daylight hours, temperature and food supply. As the days become shorter, the birds intuitively know it’s time to go. Most backyard songbirds migrate at night when the winds are calmer. They use several cues or “maps” to guide them along their route such as the position of the sun and stars, the earth’s magnetic pull and genetics/homing instincts. North/South flyways are used by mass numbers of birds because they provide food for refueling, resting areas and a certain amount of safety from predators.

It is a misnomer that continuing to feed the birds well into fall will deter them from migrating. Rather, feeding birds as they migrate through will help them to refuel and recharge.

Additionally, we are seeing a rise in year-round residency among some birds i.e. Eastern Bluebirds and American Robins, which is likely related to the availability of open water as well as food.

Bird migration - large flock of blackbirds

Do birds see color?

YES—birds see color! In fact, birds have can even see ultraviolet color because they have more cones and rods in their eyes color is critical to birds in terms of choosing a mate and finding food.

Feather color and condition is a sign of gender, good health and virility. Consider the brightly colored male Northern Cardinal, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Baltimore Oriole, Scarlet Tanager, Indigo Bunting, Eastern Bluebird, Rose-Breasted Grossbeak, Mallard, Wood Duck etc. we can readily picture the brightly colored male whereas the female is generally drab and brownish, which provides her and her young critical camouflage during nesting.

Most birds use their keen eyesight to find food especially raptors such as eagles, hawks and falcons who can detect movement from great distances. Some species search out insects and others find tasty morsels among crab apple trees, cedar, winterberry, cranberry, chokeberry and serviceberry.

Birds come to recognize bird feeders by sight. They also communicate vocally when they find food.

Sound also plays a role in finding food and water for many birds. For example, owls have a disc-like face and asymmetric ears, which allows them to detect the slightest sound and movement of a mouse in the dark.

Window Alert Decals
WindowAlert decals work because birds can see ultraviolet wavelengths.

Do birds have a good sense of smell?

While there is some disagreement among biologists/ornithologists regarding the acuteness of smell for most birds, recent findings suggest that it is more important than previously thought.

It is largely believed that scavengers including vultures can smell the remains of dead animals commonly referred to as “carrion.”

Generally speaking, backyard songbirds do not have a well-developed olfactory gland however scent is used in mating, foraging and nesting.

Turkey Vulture with Carrion
Large birds may smell carrion, but smell isn't well-developed in backyard birds

Are birds monogamous?

Most birds are not monogamic. However, most create a pair bond even if it is just for one nesting period because the success of raising young to fledging is labor intensive.

If a mate is lost to a predator or disease the surviving mate will look for a new mate the following season.

Trumpeter Swans
Photo by Kristi Walker

By Eagan Store Manager ANN MCCARTHY