A Resource For Early Childhood Educators

Background information Nocturnal Animals

Additional Information:

Background Information

 Creatures of the Night

Some of the most remarkable animals are those that rarely or never see the light of day. These animals are nocturnal; they rest during the day and are awake at night. Over millions of years, these animals have developed traits that help them survive in the darkness.

 Day and Night

One day is the 24-hour period during which the Earth rotates on its axis. An acceptable definition for young children is that a day is the period from sunrise to sunset, a time when we have light. The night is the period of darkness between sunset and sunrise. Seeing the sun during the day and the moon and stars at night is another way to discuss day and night. Listing activities we complete during the day and activities we complete at night is another way to compare and contrast day and night.


Anytime there is light, there can be shadows. A shadow is formed when something blocks light. Night is a shadow. The sun is shining on one side of the earth, the other side is in shadow or darkness. At night we see shadows created by such things as car lights, porch lights, street lights.

Nocturnal Animals

After you go to bed at night many different kinds of animals are just waking up. These are the nocturnal animals, animals that sleep during the day and are active at night. These animals like the dark because they can hide better from their enemies, it is not as hot during the night, and it is easier to find food. These animals have many adaptations that allow them to be active at night. They may have larger ears to hear better, bigger eyes to see better, and body parts that glow in the night.


Fireflies are carnivorous insects in the beetle family. They are best known for their ability to make controlled flashes of light, but not all species make light. The species that can are nocturnal and use the flashes to attract mates. Male fireflies signal while flying, and females signal from perches or near the ground. As the male flies over an area, he gives off the flash pattern typical to this species and looks for a female with the same light pattern. Different species of fireflies have different light flash patterns, and each species signals at different times of the night.

After mating, eggs are laid just under the soil and take up to 4 weeks to hatch. Firefly larvae begin feeding after hatching and continue feeding until fall, when they burrow underground where they will spend the winter. Next summer, they will emerge from the soil as adults.


Opossum are truly amazing animals. They have a prehensile tail and opposable big toes, both unique among our native mammals. Opossum are the only members of the marsupial order in North America. They are a closer relative to kangaroos and koala bears than to squirrels, foxes, and rabbits. Opossum are active at night, especially just after sunset and just before dawn. During the day, they sleep in dens and other protected spots. Opossum do not dig their own dens but use a wide variety of sites for protection, including old buildings, hollow logs or trees, rock crevices, and squirrel nests.

Opossum are slow-moving animals that are comfortable both in trees and on the ground. Because they are so slow moving, opossum are limited to eating plants and small animals (small mammals, earthworms, amphibians, birds, insects, and carrion). Opossum spend a great deal of time foraging. As they hunt for food, they meander about sniffing the air. They have a good sense of smell and use scent to locate their food. Opossum have 6-13 young. Baby opossum are born after a 13 day gestation and spend 2 months inside their mother’s pouch. After 2 months the young emerge from the pouch and will be independent by 3½ months of age.

Probably the first thing that comes to mind when people think of opossums is their habit of feigning death when disturbed. Playing possum occurs rarely in the wild. When an opossum is in danger, it will hiss and growl, lunge at the predator, or try to escape. In a few cases where it is trapped, the animal instinctively falls down with its mouth open. It may drool or give off a bad odor, trying to become as unattractive as possible.


Raccoons are a medium-sized mammal with a black, mask-like pattern on its face. The long bushy tail is alternately ringed with dark and light stripes. Raccoons are active at night, searching their home range for food. Raccoons prefer a woodland habitat near streams, but many live in urban areas, suburbs, and cities. When it comes to eating, raccoons will eat just about anything they can get their paws on. Raccoons are omnivorous. In early summer they eat crayfish, earthworms, slugs, frogs, turtles, small clams, and insects. In fall their diet consists of vegetable matter like berries, corn, and acorns. Urban raccoons feed primarily on garbage. They seem to have mastered the trick of opening the various lids, latches, and clasps of garbage containers. There is much controversy about whether raccoons wash their food or dip it in water for some other purpose. One thing is clear. This action is certainly not washing, for after an initial dip, food is eaten whether clean or dirty.

After a night of foraging, raccoons sleep through the daylight hours. They rest either in dens or in open areas where they can bask in the sun. Dens may be tree holes, under tree roots, or in woodchuck burrows. More exposed sites can be in trees or in a squirrel nests. Young raccoons are born in March and April with usually 3-5 babies in a litter. The young are weaned at 10-16 weeks and independent at 4-6 months.


The coyote is a medium-sized, slender member of the dog family. Coyotes have pointed yellowish ears, a slender pointed muzzle, and a bushy, rather short tail with a black tip. Most coyotes are yellowish gray with a buff throat and under parts. Coyotes can be active any time during the day, but they are most active at sunset and in the early morning. They may even have periods of activity during the night. Coyotes use their keen sense of smell and good hearing to catch a variety of foods. They eat small mammals, including mice, voles, rabbits, and porcupines. They also eat songbirds, snakes, frogs, turtles, crayfish, insects, fruit, and berries. Coyotes prefer a habitat on the open plains, brushy areas, and woods. Coyotes communicate with one another through facial expressions, vocal signals, and scent markings.


Bats are unique animals. They are the only mammal that is a true flyer. Bats in Iowa are nocturnal, emerging at dusk during the summer months. Bats can be found in many types of habitats: woods, near streams, opens fields, and even urban areas. During the day, bats will rest in trees, under bark, in old buildings, attics, and chimneys. Bats hunt for insects at night, preying on mosquitoes, moths, fireflies, and June bugs.

 There are many myths surrounding bats. One such myth is that bats are blind. Bats actually have very good eyesight that they use to find mates and their young. Due to their nocturnal lifestyle, bats have evolved a better hunting mechanism than eyesight. Echolocation is the use of sound and rebounding echoes to hunt for insects. A bat emits a high-pitched sound from its mouth. The sound it hits an object and returns to the bat’s ears. The echo informs the bat of the object’s size, location, and speed. Bats use echolocation not only for hunting but also to navigate. Bats that use echolocation usually have large ears to catch the rebounding echoes.

Two other misconceptions are that bats are actually flying mice and that they attack people. Bats are of the family Chiroptera, meaning hand-wing, and have no direct relation to the rodent family. Bat wings are supported by the bones of their hand, wrist, and arm. The skin of the wings is thin and transparent but strong and flexible. Bats do not attack people. They hunt and eat insects and are attracted to areas of high insect populations, like water, street lights, and around people. Bats are an excellent form of insect control with the ability to eat 600 insects in one hour.


Owls are a common nocturnal bird. Their nocturnal activities include hunting, finding and defending a territory, and communicating with a mate. Most owls prefer a habitat of old woods near open fields, but they have been found living in or near farms and urban areas. Many owls are cavity dwellers, building their nests in the holes of dead trees. Owls feed mainly on small mammals (rabbits, mice, squirrels, and chipmunks) but may also eat snakes, insects, birds, and frogs. Owls swallow their food whole: bones, fur, feathers, it all goes down to their stomachs. Since owls can’t digest bones and fur, the stomach pushes all of the indigestible material into a ball. The owl regurgitates this ball referred to as an owl pellet. Owl pellets may be dissected and the bones removed. Owl pellets have been studied extensively as they are an excellent indicator as to what the owl has been eating.


Owls have many adaptations for silently hunting at night.

Owls are one of the quietest of the nighttime predators.

Owls have large eyes and excellent eyesight for hunting.

Owls can turn their head 180 degrees in each direction. An owl can turn its head quickly, looking as though the head turned all the way around.

Owls also possess fringed feathers at the end of their wings. This allows for silent flight because their feathers muffle the air being pushed over the wing.

Owls rest during the day in the protection of branches with leaves, holes in trees or in buildings.

Owls have brown, black, and tan colors that help camouflage them in the trees.


From Nature Boxes for Early Childhood Educators, Debbi Williams, Story County Conservation Board

Story County Conservation
Linda R. F. Zaletel
56461 180th St.
Ames, IA 50010
www.storycounty.com  go to “Conservation and Parks”


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