California is well-known for its rich avifauna – there are almost 680 bird species there with a number of those being very active during the night!
Examples of nocturnal birds in California include the northern mockingbird, barn owl, spotted owl, yellow-breasted chat, Wilson’s snipe, and many others.
Do some of them sound familiar? Let’s jump in and see what each of these looks and sounds like!
Table of Contents
Night Birds In California
1. Northern Mockingbird
- Scientific name: Mimus polyglottos
Northern mockingbirds are birds most often heard singing during the night in California. The nighttime singers are often young, unattached males or older males without mates.
They are most noisy from March to August (their breeding season) and from late September to November (while establishing winter territories).
To reduce their constantly annoying singing, consider using bird nets on trees or placing cardboard cutouts of predators like hawks or owls.
These birds are year-round residents in CA and are aptly named, as they can mimic over 200 different songs and imitate up to 35 species.
Their mimicry extends to sounds like rusty hinges, car alarms, cackling hens, and dog barks, sometimes indistinguishable even with electronic analysis.
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2. Yellow-breasted Chat
- Scientific Name: Icteria virens
Yellow-breasted chats can be often heard singing in the morning and evening during summer in most parts of California. They will also even sing at night during the height of their breeding season (May to July).
Often heard than seen, they are common around dense, brushy areas and hedgerows. These birds have a unique mix of cackles, clucks, whistles, and hoots in their songs, along with harsh “chak” calls.
They can mimic other birds, sometimes confusing birdwatchers. During the breeding season, they become more conspicuous, singing from exposed spots and flying openly while gurgling their songs.
3. American Robin
- Scientific name: Turdus migratorius
American robins are California’s songbirds that can be heard around forests, lawns, and suburbs across the state, throughout the entire year.
As winter fades and daylight increases, they will be the first birds you hear singing just as dawn approaches, giving them the nickname “wake robins.”
The song is described as a “cheery” carol consisting of a string of 10 or so clear whistles; American robins also have a sharp “yeep” alarm call or a mumbled “tuk” when communicating with one another.
Source: G. McGrane, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
However, when the sun goes down, their song changes. From sunset until it gets very dark, they add soft, almost whispered notes to their singing, making their song sound elegant and intricate.
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- Scientific Name: Charadrius vociferus
Killdeers can be heard throughout the state. They inhabit open areas like sandbars, mudflats, fields, and even urban locations.
Killdeers are active day and night, with noticeable nighttime activity, especially in early spring and late summer. They often congregate in places like mall parking lots and well-lit ball fields, engaging in socializing, calling, and searching for food. Their name comes from their loud, piercing calls resembling “kill-deer, kill-deer.”
Killdeer Call | Source: Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
5. Wilson’s Snipe
- Scientific Name: Gallinago delicata
Wilson’s snipes prefer wet grassy fields, sedge marshes, and bogs. They are winter residents in California and their activity peaks during dawn and dusk.
To locate them, listen for their “tuk-tuk” call, which can be heard from the ground or low perches.
Their winnowing display flight is also very interesting and can be heard overhead. Males will fly high in circles and then take shallow dives to produce a distinctive sound. This behavior can be spotted during the day and long into the night.
6. Flammulated Owl
- Scientific Name: Psiloscops flammeolus
Flammulated owls are unique among small owls due to their completely dark eyes and low hoots.
These owls breed in the northern parts of California and can be heard most actively singing just after dark and near dawn, less in the middle of the night.
Because of the long trachea (windpipe), flammulated owls make low-pitched single or double hoots that sound like much larger owls made them. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes their repeated hoots as “ventriloquial” since it is almost impossible to locate the bird from the sound.
7. Western Screech-owl
- Scientific Name: Megascops kennicottii
These small owls with stocky bodies are common year-round in woodlands across the state. Part of their scientific name “kennicottii” is after the American naturalist Robert Kennicott.
The species are nocturnal, often seen sitting on perches before swooping down and catching their prey. They mostly feed on insects, small mammals, and birds – listen for their series of whistled notes that accelerate at the end and that are given at night.
Western screech owls can be found in different wooded habitats, but mostly prefer riparian and deciduous areas; also urban areas and parks.
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8. Great Horned Owl
- Scientific Name: Bubo virginianus
Great horned owls are one of the largest raptors in California. They measure almost 2 feet long, weigh up to 3.5 pounds, and can be found throughout the year in the state.
These owls prefer open areas like fields and marshes near mature forests. They become most vocal for an hour after dark and an hour before dawn.
Great horned owls make deep, loud “ho-ho-hoo hoo hoo” sounds that can have four or five syllables. The female owl’s call is higher-pitched, and it tends to peak after midnight.
In winter or spring, they often sing in a duet. Territorial hooting tends to decrease in February or March when they start laying eggs. In summer, the distinctive juvenile begging call can sometimes be confused with the calls of barn owls.
9. Barn Owl
- Scientific Name: Tyto alba
One of the most startling sounds you can hear at night in California is the loud, harsh call of barn owls. These permanent residents of the state are fairly common throughout the year.
During the colder months, they find shelter in thick pine trees or barns, while in the rest of the year, they hang around farms, rocky cliffs, forests, wetlands, and open areas.
These medium-sized owls have heart-shaped heads, cinnamon and gray upperparts, and white underparts. They often have a “ghostly” appearance, especially if seen at night when they are most active.
Barn owls do not hoot and make bone-chilling screams instead.
They are quite common in the USA and are among many birds that can be heard calling during the night in FL.
10. Barred Owl
- Scientific Name: Strix varia
Found in northwestern parts of CA, barred owls make their homes in forested areas, including swamps, riversides, high ground, and especially large expanses of woods.
They are active throughout the night and are known for their “who-cooks-for-you” song and “hoo-ahhh” call. They will duet, and their juveniles make a high-pitched raspy hissing noise, an automatic confirmation if it’s heard in a specific block.
11. Long-eared Owl
- Scientific Name: Asio otus
Long-eared owls are secretive, nocturnal, and well-camouflaged owls that have gray-brown bodies with pale bars and heavy streaks on their underparts.
Long-eared owls are residents of California occurring more widely in lowland areas of the state during migration and winter.
They become active shortly after dusk throughout the night. Long-eared owls don’t vocalize often but have distinct calls. The male’s song is a low-pitched series of “hoo” notes, similar to the sound of blowing across a bottle.
The distinctive juvenile begging call is also a good indicator, but caution is needed as distant barking dogs or mooing cows can sound like long-eared owls.
12. Short-eared Owl
- Scientific Name: Asio flammeus
Short-eared owls are found on all continents except Antarctica and Australia, making them one of the most widespread bird species.
Similar to long-eared owls, these nocturnal owls are most common in California during winter, although some northern populations stay there year-round. You will hear them singing around open grasslands, including weedy fields, grass strips of small airports, coastal marshes, and even agricultural fields with stubble.
Mottled brown above, they have very short ear tufts and large yellow eyes that are accentuated by black rings, making them look like they are wearing mascara!
Although mostly silent, short-eared owls will make a series of “voo-hoo-hoo” calls.
They are generally nocturnal when most of the hunting happens, but they can also be crepuscular (active near dawn and dusk).
13. Northern Saw-whet Owl
- Scientific Name: Aegolius acadicus
Northern saw-whet owls are found in forests of the Northern Coastal region and Siera Nevada year-round; in the rest of the state, they can be heard during winter.
Named after their loud and repetitive whistles described as “a saw being sharpened on a whetstone”, their calling peaks around 2 hours after sunset and decreases until just before sunrise.
Listen for the tooting advertising song of males, a repeated “toot-toot-toot.” They give a variety of other calls, and later in the season, juveniles produce a raspy, hissing call.
The compound called porphyrin makes their flight feathers unique – the pigment gives them a neon pink fluorescence when exposed to UV light.
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14. Burrowing Owl
- Scientific Name: Athene cunicularia
Burrowing owls are the only owl species that nest underground.
You’ll hear them in the open grasslands and shrub-steppe areas across Southern California and the Central Valley region.
Identify them in person by their bright eyes, long grayish legs, and lack of ear tufts. These owls have brown heads and wings with white spots and white bellies.
Burrowing owls aren’t very vocal but will still make various sounds: clucking, screaming, rattling, etc. They will often make a two-note cooing call when mating or defending territory.
What makes them unique is that most of the burrows they use to nest are made by badgers, major predators of their eggs and young.
15. Spotted Owl
- Scientific Name: Strix occidentalis
Spotted owls are species of true owls. True owls or typical owls belong to the Strigidae family and are one of the two generally accepted owl families, together with barn owls.
California spotted owls are subspecies of spotted owls that occur throughout the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California, as well as in southern and coastal California within the Coastal, Transverse, and Peninsular mountain ranges.
California spotted owls are vocal species that can be most often heard at sunset, early evening, predawn, and dawn.
Out of 13 different hoots, barks, and whistles, their most famous call consists of a series of 4 deep hoots with the middle two notes closest together. Females have higher voices than males and both sexes make the calls to defend their territory.
Unfortunately, the populations within three significant study areas in California have decreased by 31-55% since the 1990s, and these declines are speeding up.
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16. Great Gray Owl
- Scientific Name: Strix nebulosa
Today, Yosemite serves as the southernmost habitat for most of California’s great gray owls, which are categorized as an endangered species by the state. Researchers believe that there are approximately 200 to 300 of these owls there.
Patterned with brown and white mottling, streaks, and barrings, great gray owls blend perfectly with the gray-brown bark of their conifer perch.
These owls are extremely secretive and hard to find and birders often consider it a huge achievement to get a confirmed sighting.
Great gray owls hoot and hunt at night or around dusk and dawn, mostly catching voles.
They are most vocal during the breeding season with pairs making a low-pitched series of “hoos” that last between 6 and 8 seconds and have a 30-second pause between the calls. They will also make soft double hoots when protecting their territories or when humans feed them; females have higher-pitched voices than males.
17. Pied-billed Grebe
- Scientific Name: Podilymbus podiceps
Pied-billed grebes are small, stocky, and short-necked water birds found throughout the Americas. They are widespread in California and can be heard there year-round.
Identify them by their brown plumage that gets darker on the crown and back. Such colors serve as great camouflage but make it harder to spot them.
These birds are commonly found in marshes and ponds with emergent vegetation and are active throughout the night. Listen for their loud, whooping, cuckoo-like song, with pairs sometimes singing together in a duet.
18. Common Poorwill
- Scientific Name: Phalaenoptilus nuttallii
- Length: 7.1 in
- Wingspan: 12 in
- Weight: 1.3-2 oz
Common poorwills are nocturnal birds found year-round in southern parts of CA. Some populations living in the coastal parts can be heard calling during summer nights.
They inhabit dry open areas rich in grasses and shrubs where they nest on the ground and feed on nocturnal insects like grasshoppers, beetles, and moths. Common poorwills will either hunt on the ground or catch them in the air.
These small and compact night birds have grayish plumage, short wings, and tails, got their name after their song that sounds like a whistled “poor-will“.
Common Poorwill Call | Source: National Park Service, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
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19. Common Nighthawk
- Scientific Name: Chordeiles minor
These medium-sized birds with forked tails and long, pointed wings are crepuscular and nocturnal raptors found in northern and eastern parts of California when the summer breeding season comes. They are one of the last birds to arrive in the state.
Common nighthawks can be seen in prairies, forests, savannahs, and urban areas, and are most active during dawn and dusk with a visible moon. They produce a distinct peent sound and engage in courtship displays with rapid dives creating a booming sound as air passes over wings.
Common Nighthawk Call | Source: Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Remember that common nighthawks are well-camouflaged and blend with the environment during the day. Their plumage is usually gray, black, and brown with white patches on their wings close to the base of primary feathers.
20. Lesser Nighthawk
- Scientific Name: Chordeiles acutipennis
In the southern parts of California, lesser nighthawks are breeding birds found in dry washes of the foothills, while they are common breeding birds in the desert.
Lesser nighthawks are known for their erratic, bat-like flying technique, graceful loops, and frequent direction changes during flight.
Although closely related to common nighthawks, they are generally quieter birds. Lesser nighthawks are most vocal at night during their breeding season when they can produce toad-like trills lasting up to over 3 minutes.
Lesser nighthawks will forage and sing near dawn and dusk or deep into the night when there’s a full moon or street light nearby.
21. Mexican Whip-poor-will
- Scientific Name: Antrostomus arizonae
Mexican whip-poor-wills are nightbirds commonly heard after dark. Their distinctive song, resembling “whip-poor-WILL,” can be heard endlessly during the night. Out of 5 subspecies, the one breeding in southeastern California is the Antrostomus arizonae arizonae.
These birds prefer forested foothills and canyons with pines and deciduous trees, along with nearby open areas for hunting. They forage for flying insects on the ground at night.
Though similar to common poorwills, Mexican whip-poor-wills have longer tails, a distinct voice, and different habitats.
22. American Coot
- Scientific Name: Fulica americana
American coots are small chicken-like water birds with black plumage, bright white beaks, red eyes, and yellow-green legs.
Although they resemble ducks, American coots are only distantly related to them. These permanent residents of California can be seen and heard in freshwater wetlands with open water and emergent vegetation around dawn and dusk.
American coots produce a sharp “poot” call and a screeching “kree” sound, and they are particularly noisy swimmers, so you may also recognize them by splashing water sounds.
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23. Virginia Rail
- Scientific Name: Rallus limicola
Virginia rails are compact aquatic birds characterized by their brown plumage, which is notably darker on their backs and crowns. They also possess distinctive orange-brown legs and bills.
In coastal parts of California, they are common year-round, while they just breed in the remaining parts of the state. They often make harsh “kuk-kuk-kuk” calls during the night; their “grunt” calls can be used for communication between mates.
They are often found together with soras; short-billed soras feed on seeds, while the long-billed Virginia rails mostly consume insects.
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- Scientific Name: Porzana carolina
Soras are small waterbirds that can be identified by their short yellow beaks, dark-marked brown upperparts, blue-gray faces and underparts, and black and white barrings on the flanks.
Soras are common around wetlands containing cattails and patches of open water; their descending “whinny” call is used by mated pairs and when establishing territories. They also have a “ker-wee” call for attracting mates and are most active during dawn and dusk.
The best times to spot soras are early in the mornings or late in the evenings when they’re more likely to come out from the thick plants in search of food.
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25. American Bittern
- Scientific Name: Botaurus lentiginosus
American bitterns are wading birds from the heron family. These well-camouflaged solitary birds spend winters mostly in coastal parts of California. They are mainly nocturnal with most of the activity happening around dusk.
These birds prefer large cattail or sedge marshes and wet meadows, More often heard than seen, American bitterns have a distinctive booming call that resembles a congested pump that people describe as “oong-kach-oonk.“
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26. Least Bittern
- Scientific Name: Ixobrychus exilis
Least bitterns are one of the smallest heron species in the world. They are more active at dawn and dusk and less vocal in windy or rainy conditions. Males can be recognized by their soft “coo-coo-coo” and “reek-reek-reek” calls.
Least bitterns in California have experienced a significant decline in their numbers, particularly in the Central Valley where their range has notably shrunk. While they are occasionally found in Siskiyou, Modoc, and Lassen counties within their mapped range, these birds tend to migrate away from northern regions during the winter months.
However, they maintain a year-round presence in southern California along the coastal slope, the Salton Sea area, and the lower Colorado River.
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27. Black-crowned Night Heron
- Scientific Name: Nycticorax nycticorax
Black-crowned night herons, also known as black-capped night herons, are one of the most widespread heron species in the world.
They can be seen in coastal parts of California year-round.
Unlike most of their heron relatives, black-crowned night herons are most active at night or dusk. They will often bait fish – throw some food in the water to lure the prey before striking with their long beaks.
These nocturnal and noisy herons will also migrate in large flocks exclusively during the night. Part of their scientific name “Nycticorax” comes from ancient Greek and means “night raven”, referring to their nocturnal feeding habits and croaking crow-like calls.
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What Birds Sing At Night In California?
The most common birds that sing at night in California are the northern mockingbirds.
Mockingbirds singing all night are often young, unattached males or older males without a mate. In case you want to stop their nighttime singing, try to cover your tree with bird netting or attract a female mockingbird to your yard.
You might have also heard yellow-breasted chats singing in the darkness as they call out to the females, or even barn owls and their bone-chilling screams.
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California’s rich avifauna is brimming with nocturnal birds. Some can be seen year-round there, like several owl species and northern mockingbirds, while others, like yellow-breasted chats and common nighthawks, visit the state only to breed.
In case you’ve stumbled upon or heard any of these birds, we hope this guide helped you identify which ones they were.