Have you ever been jolted awake in the middle of the night by a strange, eerie scream coming from outside? If so, you’re not alone. Many people have had the unsettling experience of hearing odd nocturnal noises that sound like human screams or cries.
While this can be alarming, in most cases these chilling screams in the night come from an unexpected source: birds!
If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: The most common birds that scream or make crying noises at night are owls, nighthawks, foxes, belted kingfishers and mourning doves. However, many other birds also vocalize after dark, including Northern mockingbirds, whip-poor-wills, common loons, and common pauraques.
In this comprehensive guide, we’ll identify the most likely avian suspects behind those bone-chilling nighttime screams. We’ll discuss the reasons why birds vocalize after sunset and provide tips for identifying species by sound. Let’s solve the mystery of which birds scream at night!
Barred owls are known for their distinctive “who-cooks-for-you” hooting call, which can often be mistaken for a scream. These large owls are native to North America and are commonly found in dense forests.
Their loud vocalizations are often heard during the night as they communicate with other owls in their territory. Despite their eerie call, barred owls are not dangerous to humans and primarily feed on small mammals, birds, and amphibians.
Great Horned Owls
Great horned owls are one of the most recognizable owl species, known for their deep hooting sound. However, they can also produce a series of shrieks and screeches that may sound like screaming. These powerful predators have a diverse diet and are capable of hunting a wide range of prey, including rabbits, squirrels, and even other birds.
Great horned owls are found throughout the Americas and are well-adapted to various habitats, from forests to urban areas.
Eastern Screech Owls
Despite their name, Eastern screech owls produce a variety of calls, including trills, whinnies, and even a soft, descending whistle. These small owls are common in eastern North America and can be found in both urban and rural environments.
Their vocalizations, which can sometimes sound like eerie screams, are used for communication and territory defense. Eastern screech owls are opportunistic hunters, feeding on insects, small mammals, and birds.
Barn owls are known for their heart-shaped face and eerie screeching calls. These nocturnal birds of prey have a worldwide distribution and can be found in a variety of habitats, including farmland, grasslands, and forests.
Barn owls primarily hunt small mammals, such as mice and voles, using their exceptional hearing and silent flight to locate and capture their prey. Their distinctive screeching call, often heard at night, is used for territorial defense and courtship.
When it comes to birds that scream at night, one species that often comes to mind is the nighthawk. Nighthawks are medium-sized birds that are known for their distinctive calls and aerial acrobatics. They belong to the family Caprimulgidae, which includes nocturnal birds such as nightjars and whip-poor-wills.
Nighthawks are primarily active during the twilight hours of dawn and dusk, but they can also be seen and heard during the night. Their calls, often described as a loud “peent” or “booming” sound, can be quite eerie and may be mistaken for screams.
These calls are actually made by the male nighthawks during their courtship displays to attract females.
Characteristics of Nighthawks
Nighthawks have several distinctive characteristics that make them well-suited for their nocturnal lifestyle. Here are some key features:
- Nocturnal Adaptations: Nighthawks have large eyes and excellent night vision, allowing them to navigate and hunt for insects in low-light conditions.
- Camouflage: Their mottled brown and gray plumage helps them blend in with their surroundings, making them difficult to spot during the day when they roost on the ground or on tree branches.
- Aerial Acrobatics: Nighthawks are skilled fliers and often engage in impressive aerial displays, including soaring, diving, and zigzagging flights. They have long, pointed wings and a streamlined body that enable them to maneuver swiftly through the air.
Habitat and Distribution
Nighthawks are found in a variety of habitats across North and South America, including open woodlands, grasslands, and urban areas. They are migratory birds, with some populations traveling long distances between their breeding and wintering grounds.
In North America, the common nighthawk (Chordeiles minor) is the most widespread species, breeding across the United States and Canada. Other species, such as the Antillean nighthawk (Chordeiles gundlachii) and the Lesser nighthawk (Chordeiles acutipennis), have more restricted ranges in the Caribbean and southwestern United States, respectively.
Nighthawks face various threats to their populations, including habitat loss and degradation, collisions with human-made structures such as buildings and communication towers, and exposure to pesticides.
Some species of nighthawks have experienced declines in recent years, highlighting the need for conservation efforts to protect their habitats and address these challenges.
Other Nocturnal Bird Species
While not commonly associated with nighttime activity, the Common Loon is actually known for its haunting calls that can be heard during the night. These large, water-dwelling birds have a distinct tremolo call that can be quite eerie.
It is believed that their vocalizations serve as a means of communication and territorial defense, particularly during breeding season. If you ever find yourself near a lake or pond at night, don’t be surprised if you hear the unmistakable call of a Common Loon.
The Whip-Poor-Will is a nocturnal bird species that is famous for its distinctive call. As its name suggests, this bird has a unique call that sounds like it is saying “whip-poor-will” over and over again. It is often heard in forests and woodlands during the night.
These birds are predominantly active at dusk and dawn, and they rely on their excellent camouflage to blend in with their surroundings during the day. Their call can be quite loud and can carry for long distances, making them a well-known sound in the nighttime wilderness.
The Common Pauraque is a nightjar species that is native to the Americas. These birds are known for their exceptional camouflage, making them incredibly difficult to spot during the day. However, at night, they become more active and their distinctive calls can be heard.
The Common Pauraque’s call is often described as a repetitive, melodic sound that resembles the phrase “pau-raque.” These birds are most commonly found in forested areas and open woodlands, where they feed on insects and other small prey.
Although not exclusively nocturnal, Northern Mockingbirds are known to sing during the night, especially during the breeding season. These birds have a remarkable ability to mimic the sounds of other birds and even some non-avian species.
Their nighttime singing is believed to be a way for males to establish their territory and attract mates. So, if you find yourself awake during the night and hear a symphony of different bird songs, there’s a good chance that a Northern Mockingbird is among the performers.
Why Birds Vocalize at Night
Many people are familiar with birdsong during the daytime, but have you ever wondered why some birds choose to vocalize at night? There are several reasons why birds engage in nighttime vocalization, and understanding these motivations can provide valuable insights into their behavior and ecology.
Let’s explore some of the main reasons why birds scream at night.
One of the primary reasons why birds vocalize at night is to establish and defend their territory. By singing loudly, birds are able to communicate to other individuals that a particular area is already occupied.
This helps to prevent conflicts and reduces the likelihood of intruders encroaching on their space. The vocalizations act as a sonic boundary, announcing their presence and warning others to stay away.
Another important reason why some birds scream at night is to attract potential mates. Just like their daytime counterparts, nocturnal birds use their vocalizations as a way to advertise their fitness and attractiveness to potential partners.
These calls often serve as a signal of good health, strong genes, and overall fitness. By vocalizing at night, birds can reach a wider audience and increase their chances of finding a mate.
Communicating with Offspring
Nighttime vocalization is also a crucial means of communication between adult birds and their offspring. Many bird species nest in trees or other hidden locations, making it difficult for parents and chicks to visually locate each other during the night.
By vocalizing, parents can help guide their young ones back to the nest or provide reassurance and comfort. These calls serve as a way to maintain contact and ensure the safety and well-being of their offspring.
It’s important to note that not all birds vocalize at night. Some species are diurnal, meaning they are primarily active during the day and refrain from vocalizing at night. Others, like nocturnal owls, are known for their distinctive calls during the night.
The specific reasons for vocalization can vary depending on the bird species and their unique ecological and behavioral adaptations. If you want to learn more about specific bird species and their vocalization patterns at night, websites like All About Birds provide comprehensive information and resources.
Identifying Nocturnal Bird Sounds
When trying to figure out which bird is screaming at night, it’s important to pay attention to the unique call patterns of different species. Each bird has its own distinct vocalizations, and familiarizing yourself with these sounds can help you identify the culprit.
Some birds have a high-pitched screech, while others may produce a series of short, repetitive calls. Taking note of these patterns can narrow down your search and lead you to the right bird.
Take Note of Unique Call Patterns
One way to identify nocturnal bird sounds is to listen for unique call patterns. For example, the Eastern Screech-Owl has a distinctive trill that sounds like a horse’s whinny. The Barred Owl, on the other hand, produces a series of eight hoots that sound like “Who cooks for you?
Who cooks for you all?” Paying attention to these specific patterns can help you differentiate between different bird species.
Consider Your Location
The location in which you hear the bird screaming at night can also give you clues about its identity. Different bird species have different habitats and ranges, so knowing where you are can help narrow down the possibilities.
For example, if you live near a wooded area, you might be more likely to encounter owls or nightjars. If you’re near a body of water, it could be a heron or a bittern. Considering your surroundings can guide you in the right direction when trying to identify the bird.
Use Audio Recognition Apps
If you’re still having trouble identifying the bird by its sound alone, you can turn to technology for assistance. There are several audio recognition apps available that can help you identify bird calls. Simply record the sound you hear and let the app analyze it for you.
These apps use sophisticated algorithms and databases to match the recorded sound with known bird species. Some popular bird identification apps include Merlin Bird ID and Audubon Bird Guide. These apps can be a handy tool for bird enthusiasts and beginners alike.
Remember, identifying nocturnal bird sounds can be a fun and rewarding experience. By paying attention to unique call patterns, considering your location, and using audio recognition apps, you’ll be able to unravel the mystery of the bird that screams at night with ease!
The next time you hear odd screams, wails or cries in the darkness, don’t panic! Instead of ghosts or banshees, try to identify which avian culprit is vocalizing outside. With this guide, you now have the knowledge to solve the mystery of what birds scream at night near your home.
Understanding nocturnal bird noises can not only put your mind at ease but also allow you to appreciate nature’s sonic wonders, even after sunset. Just be sure to give these vocal birds some space and refrain from shining bright lights, which can disrupt their breeding and feeding behaviors.