Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Sleeping Birds
Nature Bulletin No. 445-A   February 19, 1972
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

Each winter, a few years ago, several thousand crows, roosted in the big woods near our house. In daytime they spread out over the countryside to find food but each evening, about sundown, they came streaming back in a continuous parade that took almost an hour to pass. In flocks of dozens or hundreds with scattered birds between, they flew the same route every day. In downstate Illinois, similar flocks roost in overgrown hedgerows of osage orange, isolated groves of timber, or on willow grown islands in large rivers.

A much smaller flock still roosts the year-round in our woods. Ordinarily they slip in a little before dusk and settle down quietly but occasionally there is a hullabaloo as if they were squabbling over a favorite perch occupied by some newcomers. Just before dawn, one old bird we call "the bugler" caws three times. A minute or two later he repeats it. Then, one by one, drowsy voices of other crows are heard -- much like human sleepyheads in the morning. Sometimes an alarm call is heard during the night followed by a general clamor as if the flock had been disturbed by a marauding owl, weasel or raccoon. Crows are very wary and, like most birds, light sleepers.

Very little has been written about the sleeping habits of birds except in a general way but apparently, like people and other warm-blooded animals, after they are tired and full of food they want to sleep. When they wake they yawn stretch, and seem refreshed but hungry again. Further, most birds cannot see well at night. Only a few, like the owls, have large eyes specially adapted for night vision. English sparrows driven at night from their roosts in our garage or among thick ivy on our house, fly off in a blind blundering panic.

Going to bed is a serious business for small birds and frequently a matter of life or death. The roost selected is usually sheltered from the wind, dry as possible, and out of reach of their enemies. Although there are many exceptions, most birds show a preference for the type of place in which they were born. So far as is known, the many kinds that nest in trees or shrubs generally one of these perching birds lights on a twig or branch and squats, its toes automatically lock tight and it cannot fall while asleep.

Hole nesters such as woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches and screech owls, usually sleep in tree cavities. The bobwhite quail, pheasant, prairie chicken, meadow lark and other ground nesters sleep on or near the ground. At night a covey of quail forms a ring with all heads pointing outward. If attacked, they explode in all directions with a great whir of wings. In winter, quail and grouse sometimes dive into and sleep completely buried in a snowdrift but if a hard crust is formed by freezing rain they perish.

Wild turkeys spend the night high in the tallest trees of some secluded woodland. During their migrations we see wild ducks and geese sleeping in dense "rafts" on the open water of lakes and sloughs; also along the shores, or even on ice, where they stand first on one foot and then the other. Like most birds, they appear to tuck their heads under their wings while asleep but, actually, it is under a tuff of feathers that drapes over each shoulder. Owls, buzzards, hawks and some other merely hunch their heads down between their shoulders. Starlings and grackles gather in great flocks which, every evening before they go to sleep, make an uproar like children on their first night in a summer camp.

Many birds "talk" in their sleep and some even sing on moonlit nights.

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