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If you enjoy birdwatching in your backyard, you’re sure to have some questions about bird behavior. One such behavior you may be wondering about is how birds sleep. It’s not something that is always at the forefront of our minds, but a question such as that begs for an answer once you think it.
We’ve never really seen birds laying down the way that we, as humans, do nor do we see them lying down the way that animals such as cats or dogs do. So how do birds sleep? Do they sleep standing up? In this article, we’ll answer this question and more about the sleeping habits of birds so that you can understand them better.
Some birds do, indeed, sleep standing up. However, not all birds do. Birds that are in the wild are the most likely to sleep standing up rather than birds that are kept in cages or as pets. But, there are even certain species of birds that are more prone to sleeping while standing up as well.
For example, perching birds are more likely to sleep while standing up than other birds. Perching birds are the largest order of birds. This order includes songbirds and some tropical birds. Specific examples include swallows, mockingbirds, crows, wrens, owls, and hummingbirds, among others.
It’s also worth noting that while all perching birds sleep standing up, some may appear to be standing more upright than others. Some birds that sleep while standing have a more squatted appearance than may even look like they are sitting, but they are still technically standing.
But even birds that are in the wild and do sleep standing up may have different sleeping habits than other birds. For example, some birds sleep while only standing on one leg while others sleep while standing on both legs. Birds also sometimes keep one eye open when they sleep and close both eyes at other times.
Now that you know that most birds do, indeed, sleep standing up, you probably have more questions about why or how they sleep standing up. Let’s dive into more about birds’ sleeping behaviors and hopefully, we’ll be able to answer all of your questions.
Some birds sleep standing up simply because it’s more comfortable for them. Think about it; many birds have long tails as well as sharp beaks and feet that may make sleeping in other positions very uncomfortable. But the biggest reason that birds sleep standing up is to better protect themselves.
Birds in the wild aren’t confined to a certain amount of space, and there are more dangers that are present as a result. Sleeping while standing up allows them to be more alert and ready to fly away in the event that there is a risk of danger. The bird’s muscles stay more alert even if the bird’s brain is in a semi-conscious state.
Unless something is wrong with them, birds also don’t tend to sleep for long periods anyway, and when they do, they don’t fall into a deep sleep. Birds can be startled away easily by predators, loud noises, or anything else that they perceive as a threat. They are the epitome of light sleepers, in a way.
Birds generally don’t sleep with both eyes open, but they will sometimes sleep with one eye open. When they do this, one half of their brain is essentially asleep while the other half is awake. Sleeping in this way is called unihemispheric slow-wave sleep.
Unihemispheric slow-wave sleep is not something that only birds in the wild do. Even pet birds may sleep with one eye open if they don’t trust their surroundings. That also means that not all wild birds sleep with one eye open either. Sometimes, they will close both of their eyes if they feel safe enough in their surroundings. But, most of the time they do sleep with one eye open.
One reason why you’ve probably never noticed a bird sleeping in the wild is because of where they choose to sleep. Sleeping while standing up allows them more protection from danger, but they still don’t just sleep on any exposed tree branch.
Birds in the wild will sleep anywhere that they feel protects them from danger and from elements such as the weather. This includes birdhouses, hollow trees, cracks and crevices, chimneys, barns, and even dense shrubbery. It’s also not uncommon to see birds sleeping under the eaves of a house or porch.
Essentially, birds will sleep anywhere in which it would be hard for predators, weather, or other threats to get to them and they’ll only sleep somewhere in which they feel relatively safe. But, even when sleeping in a safe place, a bird will still likely sleep standing up and with one eye open, just in case.
Another question that you may have is whether or not birds fall if they sleep standing up. It’s a valid question, considering the height at which some birds sleep. Having learned that birds rarely go into a deep sleep should assure you that even if they do start to fall, they’ll be woken up. Luckily, however, they don’t fall when they sleep standing up thanks to their flexor tendons.
Birds don’t tend to fall while sleeping because their bodies (particularly their legs and feet) are designed in a way that keeps their grip tight and their body upright. The feet of perching birds contain two tendons called flexor tendons that extend from their leg muscles to the tips of their feet.
These flexor tendons tighten when a bird lands on a perch, e.g., a tree branch, their nest, etc. This allows them to maintain a tight, locked grip on the perch. This is an involuntary reflex, which means that it happens automatically without the bird having to think about it.
As long as the legs stay bent on the perch, the tendons will stay tight and the bird will not fall. The weight on the bird also helps the legs to stay at least slightly bent on the perch so that the tendons stay tight. When the bird awakens and stands straight up, the tendons loosen and the bird’s toes release their grip from around the perch.
We mentioned earlier that not all birds sleep while standing up. This behavior is mostly reserved for perching birds that mostly sleep while elevated and have two flexor tendons in their legs and feet.
But waterfowl (ducks, geese, etc.) may sleep either on the water or in hidden places close to the ground. They still use unihemispheric slow-wave sleeping, but sleeping closer to the ground allows them to be altered to predators through either the water rippling or leaves and twigs on the ground surrounding them crunching. Waterfowl also usually sleep with their heads tucked into their feathers.
Some birds, particularly parrots, will even sleep upside down. Their coloring helps them to blend in better with leaves on trees, which disguises them better from predators. Parrots also have slightly different anatomy than perching birds, and sleeping upside down enables them to take off in flight in the event of danger better than if they were sleeping upright.
We hope this article answered all of your questions. Most birds sleep standing up because it is more comfortable and protects them from danger as well. In addition, many birds in the wild also sleep with one eye open to make them more alert as well. Sleeping while standing up is part of a bird’s natural instincts, and most birds that you see in your yard will sleep in this way.
Featured Image Credit: Bonnie Taylor Barry, Shutterstock
Savanna is a former science teacher who is now a full-time freelance writer currently living in the United States with her husband and daughter. Other members of her family include a long-haired chihuahua named Penny, three cats, and an aquatic turtle named Creek. In addition to writing, her passions include gardening, traveling, and protecting our wildlife and natural resources.
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