Did you recently come across a night bird in the state of California, and want to know what species it was?
Identifying nocturnal birds in the Golden State is not as easy as it might seem, since there are many night birds in the state, and it’s hard to get a good look at them in the dark.
To help you identify the bird you saw, we’ll cover the most common night birds of California and their sounds in this article.
What are the types of night birds in California (and what are their sounds)?
There are 15 types of night birds found in California, which are covered in full detail below.
And if you’re wondering what noise these California birds make at night, read on below, as we’ll also cover their nighttime sounds.
Scientific name: Mimus polyglottos
Sound of Northern Mockingbird:
(Recording source: Sue Riffe, XC664292, www.xeno-canto.org/664292)
The melodious whistling song of the Northern Mockingbird can be heard on moonlit nights in many parts of California.
And while the Northern Mockingbird is active during the day, young males sing most actively during the night between midnight and 4 AM.
The Northern Mockingbird is a common backyard bird and year-round resident in California. If you have one of these songsters in your neighborhood, you’ll hear them every night.
This bird is the only mockingbird species found in North America. It prefers wooded areas as well as urban habitats with sufficient tree growth, such as parks and golf courses.
Scientific name: Icteria virens
Sound of Yellow-breasted Chat:
(Recording source: Richard E. Webster, XC766370, www.xeno-canto.org/766370)
The Yellow-breasted Chat is another songbird that makes noise at night. Similar to Northern Mockingbirds, these birds chirp at night in California in order to attract mates.
Yellow-breasted Chats are only encountered as breeding birds in large parts of California, where they occur as summer visitors from May through August.
These yellow California birds are between the size of a sparrow and a robin. They have an olive-green back and a bright yellow breast, a gray face, and a distinct white eyebrow stripe.
They can usually be found in dense areas such as thickets, bramble bushes, shrubs, and along streams.
The diet of this bird consists of small insects, such as moths, beetles, ants, and grasshoppers. They also eat berries such as wild grapes and elderberries.
Scientific name: Chordeiles minor
Sound of Common Nighthawk:
(Recording source: Peter Ward and Ken Hall, XC613899, www.xeno-canto.org/613899)
The Common Nighthawk is another member of the nightjar family that is dark brown with white comma-shaped markings on its wings.
The bright white bars on their wings are very conspicuous during flight, and this is a great feature for identifying them.
Nighthawks are most active at dusk and dawn, and if you see one in low light conditions, it looks like a type of black bird with white stripes on its wing.
During the summer, the Common Nighthawk is a regular breeding bird in California, but it is a strict migratory species, and spends the winter in South America.
It breeds in a wide variety of open woodland habitats, including urban areas. It feeds on insects that it catches in flight.
Scientific name: Chordeiles acutipennis
Sound of Lesser Nighthawk:
(Recording source: Paul Marvin, XC574268, www.xeno-canto.org/574268)
The Lesser Nighthawk is slightly smaller than the previous species, and is also most often observed flying low to the ground around at dusk.
The Lesser Nighthawk is an uncommon summer visitor and breeding bird of southern California, but is locally common in the desert habitats of the state.
These birds hunt swarming insects, and are sometimes found around streetlights that attract flying insects.
Scientific name: Phalaenoptilus nuttallii
Sound of Common Poorwill:
(Recording source: Lance A. M. Benner, XC533392, www.xeno-canto.org/533392)
Similar to other species of nightjars, Common Poorwills are strictly nocturnal and therefore best identified by their two-syllable song.
If you come across one of these birds during the day, it is most likely to be on the ground, where its gray brown camouflage makes it hard to see.
Common Poorwills are summer visitors in coastal and central California, but occur year-round in the southeastern parts of the state.
Scientific name: Antrostomus arizonae
Sound of Common Poorwill:
(Recording source: Jarrod Swackhammer, XC253148 , www.xeno-canto.org/253148)
This member of the nightjar species is similar to the Common Poorwill, but has a different song, and is thus best identified by its sound.
These elusive night birds are found in mixed forests of the foothills in southeastern California.
They also resemble Eastern Whip-poor-wills, but the two species don’t overlap in range, which makes their identification easier.
Scientific name: Nycticorax nycticorax
Black-crowned Night Heron sound:
(Recording source: Jens Kirkeby, XC235340 , www.xeno-canto.org/235340 )
The Black-crowned Night-Heron is true to its name, and is most active at dusk and during the night, when it forages for frogs and small fish in California wetlands.
This heron is a common breeding bird and year-round resident in California, though it can be hard to spot during the day, unless you find its day-time hiding spots.
Another great distinguishing feature of this heron are its strange bird sounds, which resemble barking or loud squawking, and which it utters at dusk when it flies out from its roost.
Black-crowned Night-Herons are social birds, and usually nest in colonies that share the same nesting tree.
Great Horned Owl
Scientific name: Bubo virginianus
Great Horned Owl call:
(Recording source: Christopher McPherson, XC691461, www.xeno-canto.org/691461)
With a wingspan up to 4 feet, the Great Horned Owl is the largest owl species breeding in California.
It is a large brown-colored bird with two ear tufts (also called horns) and big yellow eyes. This California owl starts its nesting very early in the year, laying its eggs in January or February.
This owl is almost entirely nocturnal, and can hunt in complete darkness by relying on its keen sense of hearing.
The Great Horned Owl doesn’t build its own nest, but instead occupies the nests of other large birds in California, such as herons or raptors.
It is found year-round throughout California, and can be found in a wide variety of habitats in California, from woodlands to urban areas.
This owl is a fierce hunter, catching birds up to the size of ducks, and mammals up to the size of squirrels, rabbits, and even young foxes.
Scientific name: Tyto alba
Barn Owl sound:
(Recording source: Jayrson De Oliveira, XC619814, www.xeno-canto.org/619814)
Somewhat softer and less intense-looking than the Great Horned Owl, Barn Owls are characterized by their white coat of feathers, and their “friendlier” appearance.
Armed with exceptional night vision, Barn Owls are strictly nocturnal raptors and therefore hard to spot. However, they can be readily identified by their characteristic screeching calls.
And if you do spot one flying overhead by the light of the moon, you may be able to see the glow of their white underside.
These owls are present in California all year round, and favor open areas and farmland as their hunting grounds.
Scientific name: Asio otus
Long-eared Owl sound:
(Recording source: Baltasar Pinheiro, XC737794, www.xeno-canto.org/737794)
These well-camouflaged, elusive owls are smaller than the aforementioned species, and can be seen in California during the winter months.
They use their favored habitat of dense wooded areas to prey on the small rodents and animals that call the nearby grasslands their home.
Similar to other owl species, Long-eared Owls can fly completely silently due to fringes on their flight feathers.
Together with their keen sense of hearing, this enables these owls to catch prey by surprising it in the dark of the night.
But despite their best efforts to remain hidden, these owls can be identified by their long, low hoots.
Another great characteristic for identifying these owls is by their elongated tufts of feathers on the ears, and their droppings found underneath conifer trees close to grassy areas.
Scientific name: Strix varia
Barred Owl sound:
(Recording source: Jim Berry, XC713081, www.xeno-canto.org/713081)
The Barred Owl was originally a bird of eastern North America, but it steadily expanded its range westwards over the past century.
This owl can be encountered in the northern parts of California anywhere there are suitable habitats.
Similar to other owls, the Barred Owl is easiest to find by listening for its characteristic hooting call at night.
Their preferred habitat is mature forests bordering swamps. They readily accept nest boxes that are set up in old trees.
Scientific name: Athene cunicularia
Burrowing Owl sound:
(Recording source: David Ricardo Rodriquez-Villamil, XC524489, www.xeno-canto.org/524489)
The Burrowing Owl is a scarce resident of open areas in California. It digs its own burrows, but also often takes over burrows from prairie dogs or ground squirrels.
This small California bird of prey is active both day and night, and hunts insects and small rodents in open areas.
Due to their small size, these owls can be hard to spot in the expanse of open prairies.
They are most often observed perching on a small mound, from where they can scan their surroundings in search of food.
Scientific name: Asio flammeus
Short-eared Owl call:
(Recording source: Lars Edenius, XC718743, www.xeno-canto.org/718743)
The Short-eared Owl is a highly migratory owl species, and while it only breeds in northernmost California, it is regularly observed throughout the state outside of the breeding season.
Short-eared Owls are more often observed hunting in daylight than other owls species.
Together with their hunting tactic of flying low over the ground in open areas, this makes these owls relatively easy to spot.
You can encounter these owls in California in any kind of open landscapes, including farmland, airports, and fallow land.
Scientific name: Megascops kennicottii
Western Screech Owl sound:
(Recording source: Lance A. M. Benner, XC540561, www.xeno-canto.org/540561)
The sound recording above is of the territorial song of an Eastern Screech-Owl. These owls are common birds in California and can be seen in the state all year round.
Originally birds of open woodlands, Western Screech-Owls have adapted very well to urban habitats, and are regularly found in parks, large gardens, and golf courses.
They breed in tree cavities, and are best identified by their characteristic series of accelerating hoots.
They have a very varied diet, which includes any type of small animal ranging from worms to insects and rodents.
Western Screech-Owls readily accept artificial nesting cavities, which means you can attract them to your backyard by setting up nest boxes.
What birds sing at night in California?
The birds that sing at night in California are most often Northern Mockingbirds.
Mockingbirds singing at night are usually young male birds trying to attract a mate. They sing at night during most of the year, except for the fall.
In addition to mockingbirds, other common California birds that sing at night are nightjars and owls.
Finally, Yellow-breasted Chats also sing at night, but these birds are not found in all parts of California.
Other California birds that sometimes sing at night are American Robins, Western Meadowlarks, and Killdeer.
In summary, here are the 15 most common nocturnal birds found in California:
- Northern Mockingbird
- Yellow-breasted Chat
- Common Nighthawk
- Lesser Nighthawk
- Common Poorwill
- Mexican Whip-poor-will
- Black-crowned Night-heron
- Great Horned Owl
- Barn Owl
- Long-eared Owl
- Barred Owl
- Burrowing Owl
- Short-eared Owl
- Western Screech-Owl
While this is a diverse list of bird species (including nightjars, songbirds, owls, and herons), they all have in common that they are entirely or partially active at night.
Many of these night birds are found all year in California, but a number of them only occur in the state only during the breeding season in summer, or as winter visitors.
The varied habitats of California are home to more than 450 different species of birds, and nighttime birds make up a significant proportion of this rich avifauna.
Ranging from whippoorwills to nighthawks and owls, these night birds play a vital role in the ecology of their habitats.
If you enjoyed this article, check out our guide to the black birds of California.