A Peregrine Falcon climbs high into the sky as it watches a flock of shorebirds migrating along the coast below. Changing direction, the raptor begins to fly directly toward the ground below before closing its wings and entering a dive that reaches 200 miles an hour.
This remarkable bird may have spotted its prey from over a mile away, and it must now maintain focus and critical distance perception at these mind-numbing speeds.
For birds, survival hinges on eyesight. Without sharp vision, hunters would go hungry, the hunted would fall victim, and migrants may lose their way. In this guide, we’ll dive further into the adaptations of the avian eye and learn just what makes bird vision so special.
For a bird of prey, catching food requires a combination of speed, strategy, power, and pin-point senses. Eyesight is everything to these birds, and they have a range of specialized features to give them the edge over their prey.
Their first advantage is the frontal placement of their eyes, with a large degree of overlap for judging the size and distance of their target.
Light passing through their forward-facing eyes is focused by the adjustable cornea and lens to reach the retina and fovaea.
Here, light is absorbed by color-sensitive cone cells that can reach a staggering density of one million cells per square millimeter! This vast amount of sensory data travels to the brain via the optic nerve.
A Red Kite. Birds of prey have the advantage of the frontal placement of their eyes, with a large degree of overlap for judging the size and distance of their target
Birds are extremely mobile creatures, capable of migrating thousands of miles and returning to precisely the same place. In fact, the Arctic Tern undertakes the longest migrations of any species on Earth!
Migratory birds use a variety of techniques to navigate along the way, but their eyes are their most important tool.
Scientists have discovered that birds can detect polarized light, although how they use it during navigation is not fully understood. We know that birds can ‘see’ the Earth’s magnetic field, and research suggests that some may use polarized light to calibrate their directional compass.
Many birds have an extraordinary field of view, and some species can even see a full 360 degrees on the horizontal plane. This helps them detect predators from almost any angle, and such a commanding view may also help them scan the horizon for landmarks as they navigate their home range or migrate between nesting and overwintering grounds.
Birds have excellent memory and problem-solving skills, but they rely on their eyes to gather much of the data for these advanced cognitive abilities.
Spatial memory based on visual inputs may help birds return to rich foraging grounds and previously used nest sites or remember prominent landmarks that guide their migrations.
The Arctic Tern undertakes the longest migrations of any species on Earth!
Birds that live in dark environments tend to have bigger eyes. The relationship is quite significant, and research has shown that you can even predict where a bird lives by analyzing its eye size.
Tropical forest birds have evolved larger eyes, which capture more light and hold more neurons to transport visual data to the brain. Their specialized eyes help them hunt and navigate through the dark understory.
The forest isn’t completely dark, of course, as rays of sunshine penetrate the canopy, creating a confusing mosaic of dappled light. It can take several minutes for birds’ eyes to fully adjust to major changes in light, but just milliseconds for the pupil to respond to these partial changes.
Forest and woodland birds live in a world of branches, glades, and tangled undergrowth, which can be difficult and even dangerous to navigate at flying speeds. Rapid pupil response helps them deal with constant changes in light, but their eyes must also focus rapidly to avoid colliding with branches while weaving their way through foliage.
Birds’ eyes focus fast, but they can also process a lot more visual data per second than you and I. Birds might even be seeing the world in sort of slow motion, which gives them much more time to change their course.
Research into the visual ‘speed’ of woodland birds like Collared and Pied Flycatchers has shown that they can detect flickering light at over 140hz or flashes per second. To our eyes, that flicker rate looks like a constant glow.
A Hoatzin. Tropical forest birds have evolved larger eyes, which capture more light and hold more neurons to transport visual data to the brain
A Pied Flycatcher. Forest and woodland birds live in a world of branches, glades, and tangled undergrowth that can be difficult to navigate at flying speeds
The eye is a sensitive organ, vulnerable to damage from scratches, dust, and other foreign bodies. Birds have upper and lower eyelids to protect their eyes, but they also have a ‘third eyelid’ called the nictitating membrane that can open and close independently to clean and lubricate the cornea.
Light refracts or ‘bends’ as it passes from air into water, which presents a challenge to birds that hunt prey moving beneath the surface. Many diving birds solve this problem by diving as vertically as possible, but Kingfishers and Herons also adjust for refraction when striking at an angle.
A Great Cormorant. Birds like Cormorants and Dippers that hunt underwater can close their nictitating membranes to protect their eyes from debris in the water while still finding their way and spotting their prey
Most birds are diurnal with optical adaptations for navigating their world in daylight. However, nocturnal species like Owls rely on their powerful vision after the sun has set.
Owls have extraordinarily large eyes, and some species have bigger eyes than us, even though they’re just a fraction of our weight. Their large, tube-shaped eyes with wide-opening pupils are perfectly evolved for sensitive night vision.
The retina of an Owl’s eye is dominated (about 90%) by light-sensitive rod cells. These photoreceptors do not determine colors, but they are excellent for detecting movement and shapes in dim light.
Diurnal birds are tetrachromatic, which means they have four types of color-sensitive cone cells in the foveae and retinae of their eyes.
We have three types of cone cells, and most other mammals have just two, so birds can perceive a greater range of colors than other warm-blooded animals.
Many birds, including songbirds and gulls, are even able to perceive colors in the ultraviolet range of the spectrum, which is too short for our eyes to detect.
A Secretary Bird. Diurnal birds are tetrachromatic, which means they have four types of color-sensitive cone cells in the foveae and retinae of their eyes
From tracking prey at terrifying speeds to plunge-diving into the water to snatch a wriggling minnow, birds rely on their eyes for some pretty extraordinary tasks.
Each and every species has excellent vision, but we also see a diverse range of special adaptations to suit their various lifestyles and habitats.
We may never know the thrill of flying through the canopy of forest trees or seeing the world in all its colors, but with the benefit of scientific discoveries and a little imagination, each avian species offers us a unique lens to view the world.
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