This paper reviews the occurrence of nocturnal activity, particularly foraging, in wildfowl (Anseriformes) and shorebirds (Charadrii), and discusses its significance. Many duck species are mainly active at night while others regularly feed during both the day and night. Some ducks and geese are normally day feeders and occasionally forage during darkness. In a few duck species, courtship also has been observed at night. Most shorebirds forage both by day and night, in temperate and in tropical latitudes. Some are mainly crepuscular and nocturnal feeders and also display at dusk and at night. Some species may use their daytime territory at night.

A few shorebird species, including some visual peckers and long-billed tactile probers, use the same foraging method to detect and capture food by night as by day. However, some long-billed species that forage visually during daytime modify their feeding techniques and rely completely or partly on tactile means for detecting prey at night. Large eyes seem an advantage to plovers and other sight feeders for night feeding. Numerous touch-sensitive corpuscles in the bill of ducks and many scolopacid species favour tactile feeding. Some ducks, geese and shorebirds may especially use moonlit nights for feeding though, in a few species, moonlight seems to have no effect. The possible role of bioluminescence is also discussed.

Nocturnal activity may occur for two reasons. The night may be preferred because foraging is more profitable or safest from predators. Alternatively, birds may be forced to forage at night because they fail to collect all their food requirements during the day. The evidence for both hypotheses is reviewed. Nocturnal activity does appear to allow wildfowl, and perhaps shorebirds, to avoid diurnal predators (including man). Shorebirds, and some ducks also seem to take advantage of prey that are more abundant and/or accessible at night. The main evidence for the supplementary feeding hypothesis comes from studies of seasonal variations in the occurrence of nocturnal feeding, about which rather little is known at present. The increasing availability of modern night-viewing equipment may help to fill this gap.

There are two important implications arising from the widespread occurrence of nocturnal activity in wildfowl. Most knowledge on time and energy budgets is based on daytime studies, and so may need to be revised. Wintering dabbling ducks and shorebirds, at least in some regions, may use different habitats by day and by night. If confirmed, there would be a need to preserve some wintering habitats which, although little used by ducks and shorebirds during the day, may be intensively used at night.