Nocturnal Birds of Prey in the U.S. – Owls, Nightjars, and More!

Nocturnal Birds of Prey in the U.S. Nighttime Hunters
Nocturnal Birds of Prey in the U.S.

Nocturnal birds of prey are fascinating creatures that come alive when the sun sets. In the United States, these birds include owls, nightjars, and others. They have adapted to life in the dark with unique features that help them hunt and survive. Let’s explore these amazing birds and learn more about their habits, habitats, and characteristics.

Owls: Masters of the Night

Owls are probably the most well-known nocturnal birds of prey. There are many different owl species found throughout the U.S., from the tiny Elf Owl to the impressive Great Horned Owl.

Owls have some amazing adaptations for hunting at night:

  • Large, forward-facing eyes for excellent night vision
  • Feathered disks around the eyes to direct sound
  • Soft feathers for nearly silent flight
  • Sharp talons for catching prey

Most owls are sit-and-wait predators. They find a good spot to perch, then watch and listen for the rustle of a mouse or other small animal. When they spot their target, they swoop down swiftly and silently to catch their meal with their powerful feet.

Some common owl species you might spot (or more likely hear) at night include:

Owl SpeciesHabitatCall
Great Horned OwlForests, citiesDeep hoots
Barred OwlDense forests“Who cooks for you?”
Barn OwlOpen fields, barnsEerie screech
Eastern Screech-OwlForests, suburbsTrilling whinny

Owls make all sorts of hoots, screeches, and whistles at night. Learning the different owl calls is a fun way to go “owling” and locate these stealthy birds in the dark.

Characteristics and Behavior

  • Eyesight: Owls have large eyes that are well-suited for low-light conditions. Their eyes are fixed in their sockets, so they must turn their entire head to look around. This ability to rotate their heads up to 270 degrees helps them spot prey from various angles.
  • Hearing: Owls have exceptional hearing, with ears positioned asymmetrically on their heads. This unique ear placement allows them to pinpoint the exact location of sounds, even in complete darkness.
  • Feathers: The feathers of owls are designed for silent flight. The edges of their feathers are serrated, reducing noise and allowing them to sneak up on their prey without being detected.

Common Owl Species in the U.S.

  1. Barn Owl: Known for its heart-shaped face, the barn owl is found in open fields and farmlands.
  2. Great Horned Owl: This large owl has tufted ears and is found in forests, swamps, and deserts.
  3. Snowy Owl: With its striking white plumage, the snowy owl is often seen in the northern regions during winter.

>> Related Article: List Of The Most Common Birds Found In North America

Nightjars: The Silent Hunters

Nightjars are another group of nocturnal birds of prey. They are medium-sized birds with long wings and short legs. Nightjars are known for their camouflaged plumage, which helps them blend into their surroundings during the day.

Characteristics and Behavior

  • Feeding: Nightjars primarily feed on insects, catching them in flight with their wide mouths. They are most active at dusk and dawn.
  • Camouflage: Their mottled brown, gray, and black feathers make them nearly invisible when resting on the ground or in trees.
  • Vocalizations: Nightjars have distinctive calls that can be heard during the night. These calls are often used to attract mates or defend their territory.

Common Nightjar Species in the U.S.

  1. Common Poorwill: Found in open woodlands and deserts, the common poorwill is known for its soft, repetitive call.
  2. Eastern Whip-poor-will: This bird is named after its call, which sounds like “whip-poor-will.” It is found in forests and woodlands.
  3. Chuck-will’s-widow: With a call that sounds like its name, this nightjar is found in the southeastern United States.

Other Nocturnal Birds of Prey

While owls and nightjars are the most well-known, there are other nocturnal birds of prey in the U.S. as well.

Night Herons

Night herons are wading birds that are most active after sunset. They have stocky bodies and long legs, making them excellent hunters of fish and other aquatic prey.

  • Black-crowned Night Heron: Found throughout the U.S., this heron has a black crown and back with gray wings.
  • Yellow-crowned Night Heron: This heron is more slender and is primarily found in the southeastern U.S.

Habitats and Adaptations

Nocturnal birds of prey have adapted to various habitats across the U.S. Their ability to hunt in the dark gives them an advantage over diurnal predators.


  • Forests: Many owls, such as the barred owl, thrive in dense forests where they can find plenty of prey.
  • Deserts: Species like the elf owl are adapted to the arid conditions of the southwestern deserts.
  • Wetlands: Night herons are commonly found in wetlands, where they hunt for fish and amphibians.


  • Camouflage: Both owls and nightjars have plumage that helps them blend into their environment, making them difficult to spot during the day.
  • Silent Flight: The specialized feathers of owls allow them to fly silently, giving them an edge in hunting.
  • Enhanced Senses: The large eyes and sensitive ears of these birds enable them to detect prey even in the darkest conditions.

Birdwatching at Night

Birdwatching at night can be a thrilling experience. Here are some tips to help you get started.

Tips for Night Birding

  • Use a Red Light: Red lights are less likely to disturb nocturnal birds than white lights.
  • Listen Carefully: Many nocturnal birds are more easily heard than seen. Learn to recognize their calls.
  • Be Patient: Nocturnal birds can be elusive. Patience and quiet observation are key.

Popular Night Birding Spots

  • National Parks: Many national parks offer excellent opportunities for night birding. Look for areas with diverse habitats.
  • Wildlife Refuges: These protected areas are often home to a variety of nocturnal birds.
  • Local Nature Reserves: Check out local nature reserves and parks for night birding opportunities.

Conservation Concerns

Nocturnal birds of prey face several threats, including habitat loss, pollution, and climate change. Conservation efforts are essential to protect these remarkable birds.


  • Habitat Loss: Urban development and deforestation reduce the available habitat for these birds.
  • Pollution: Pesticides and other pollutants can poison their prey, leading to declines in bird populations.
  • Climate Change: Changes in climate can affect the availability of prey and suitable nesting sites.

Nocturnal vs. Diurnal Birds

Most birds are diurnal, which means they’re awake during the day. So how are nocturnal birds different? Here’s a little compare and contrast:

Nocturnal BirdsDiurnal Birds
Active at nightActive during day
Often have big eyesUsually smaller eyes
Many eat rodents and insectsMany eat seeds and berries
Quiet during daySing during day
Duller colorsOften bright colors

Some birds, like the American robin, are crepuscular. That means they’re most active at dawn and dusk.

Conservation Efforts

  • Protected Areas: Establishing and maintaining protected areas helps preserve critical habitats.
  • Education and Awareness: Educating the public about the importance of nocturnal birds of prey can lead to better conservation practices.
  • Research: Ongoing research helps us understand the needs of these birds and how best to protect them.


Nocturnal birds of prey in the U.S., including owls, nightjars, and others, are fascinating creatures with unique adaptations for life in the dark. By learning more about these birds and supporting conservation efforts, we can help ensure their survival for future generations to enjoy. Whether you’re an experienced birder or just starting, exploring the world of nocturnal birds of prey is a rewarding experience.

List 51 of Birds Nocturnal Birds in the U.S.

No.Bird SpeciesHabitatDiet
1Great Horned OwlWoodlands, deserts, urban areasSmall mammals, birds, reptiles
2Barn OwlGrasslands, farms, forestsRodents, small mammals
3Barred OwlSwamps, forestsSmall mammals, birds, amphibians
4Western Screech OwlForests, desertsInsects, small birds, mammals
5Burrowing OwlGrasslands, desertsInsects, small mammals, reptiles
6Great Grey OwlBoreal forests, mountainsSmall mammals, voles
7Northern Saw-whet OwlForestsSmall mammals, birds
8Eastern Screech OwlWoodlands, suburban areasInsects, small mammals, birds
9Long-eared OwlWoodlands, grasslandsSmall mammals, birds
10Short-eared OwlGrasslands, marshesSmall mammals, birds
11Elf OwlDeserts, woodlandsInsects, small vertebrates
12Spotted OwlOld-growth forestsSmall mammals, birds, insects
13Flammulated OwlMontane forestsInsects
14Northern Pygmy OwlForestsBirds, small mammals, insects
15Common NighthawkOpen woodlands, urban areasFlying insects
16Whiskered Screech-owlWoodlands, riparian areasInsects, small vertebrates
17Boreal OwlBoreal forestsSmall mammals, birds
18Ferruginous Pygmy OwlDesert scrub, forestsSmall birds, mammals, insects
19Snowy OwlArctic tundra, open fieldsSmall mammals, birds, fish
20Tawny OwlMixed forests, urban areasSmall mammals, birds, insects
21Mottled OwlTropical forests, woodlandsSmall mammals, birds, insects
22Ashy-faced OwlWoodlands, agricultural areasSmall mammals, birds
23Greater Sooty OwlRainforests, eucalypt forestsSmall mammals, birds
24Eastern Grass OwlGrasslands, wetlandsSmall mammals, birds
25Itombwe OwlMontane forestsSmall mammals, birds, insects
26Pallid Scops OwlWoodlands, scrublandsInsects, small vertebrates
27Collared Scops OwlForests, plantationsInsects, small vertebrates
28Oriental Bay OwlRainforestsSmall mammals, birds, insects
29Black-crowned Night HeronWetlands, riversidesFish, crustaceans, small vertebrates
30Yellow-crowned Night HeronWetlands, coastal areasCrustaceans, small fish, insects
31Common PoorwillGrasslands, desertsInsects, primarily moths
32Chuck-will’s-widowWoodlands, forestsInsects, small birds
33Whip-poor-willForests, woodlandsFlying insects
34Northern Hawk OwlBoreal forests, open woodlandsSmall mammals, birds
35Long-whiskered OwletMontane forestsInsects, small vertebrates
36Spectacled OwlTropical forestsSmall mammals, birds, insects
37Common Barn OwlGrasslands, farms, forestsRodents, small mammals
38Oriental Scops OwlWoodlands, forestsInsects, small vertebrates
39Northern White-faced OwlSavannas, woodlandsInsects, small mammals
40Taliabu Masked OwlTropical forests, grasslandsSmall mammals, birds
41Eurasian Scops OwlWoodlands, scrublandsInsects, small vertebrates
42Japanese Scops OwlForests, rural areasInsects, small vertebrates
43Pernambuco Pygmy OwlTropical forestsSmall birds, insects
44Little OwlGrasslands, deserts, urban areasInsects, small mammals
45Northern BoobookBoreal forests, mountainsSmall mammals, birds, insects
46Collared OwletTropical forests, woodlandsSmall birds, insects
47American Barn OwlGrasslands, farms, forestsRodents, small mammals
48Eastern Whip-poor-willForests, woodlandsFlying insects
49Common PauraqueGrasslands, scrublandsInsects, small vertebrates
50Buff-fronted OwlSubtropical forestsSmall mammals, birds
51Tawny FrogmouthWoodlands, urban areasInsects, small vertebrates
Picture of Nathan


I absolutely adore birds, especially lovebirds, and I’m passionate about exploring forests for bird watching. I wanted to create a space for fellow bird lovers to connect, learn, and share experiences.