For the Birds Radio Program: Denizens of Darkness

Original Air Date: May 9, 1997

This program is about night birds and their sounds. (3:37) Date verified.

Audio missing


One of my greatest pleasures in April and early May is sitting out at dusk listening, and sometime even watching, woodcocks courting. Sometimes they perform well into the night, and if we stay out with them long enough, we’ll usually hear other birds of the night.

Owls hoot and make weird beak snappings and other sounds that give them an eerie night presence. Owls are uniquely designed for nocturnal life, with huge eyes and ears, and wings designed for silent flight, but they’re hardly the only birds to be seen and heard in darkness.

This time of year, Ruffed Grouse do much of their drumming at night. When I sleep at my mother-in-law’s house in Port Wing, Wisconsin, I often hear drumming the entire night through. The deep, resonant sounds are just barely out of the hearing range of owls, whose ears are more finely attuned to high-pitched mouse squeaks, so tasty grouse are fairly safe from these fierce night hunters.

Marshes and other wetlands are rich in night sounds. Frogs are especially conspicuous, but several birds join in the chorus. Snipe make a magical winnowing sound in flight. Snipe are the birds with the singing tails—the sound is actually produced by two specialized, stiff tail feathers which they can erect when flying in a cool zigzag. Down in the cattails, rails skulk, occasionally making wonderful and interesting sounds. The Yellow Rail, rare enough that birders from throughout the country come to northern Minnesota every year just to add it to their lists, sounds strangely like someone is clicking two stones together. The Virginia Rail makes a variety of sounds, including a characteristic kiddick, kiddick, kiddick. The Sora is my favorite rail, partly because it is the only bird in the universe whose name rhymes with mine, partly because one once skulked along the sidelines of a nationally-broadcast football game in Soldier Field in Chicago, and partly because these are really cool birds. Soras make a variety of calls, too, often punctuated by a characteristic whinny.

Song Sparrows are supposedly strictly daytime birds, but they often break into song in the middle of the night. I don’t know if they’re talking in their sleep, suffering from insomnia, or just pulling an all-nighter to finish their homework, but it’s really neat to hear them in the darkness. Many songbirds are awake at night. Ornithologists working in planetariums have figured out that the way birds use stars for navigation is that during the summer they watch the night sky long enough to figure out which one star is fixed in the sky. That north star serves as their beacon. They fly away from it in fall and towards it in spring. I like to wonder what little birds are thinking as they gaze at the stars.

Nighttime birding will hardly produce the number of species you can find in the day, but the birds you do find in the dark are like starlight–their enticing magic dissipates and vanishes as the sun appears. So go on outside and enjoy the dark loveliness. Just remember, be careful out there.