Birds have arguably the best eyesight in all the animal kingdom. From eagles that can spot their prey from thousands of feet away, to kingfishers and other diving birds that can make the corrections necessary to dive straight onto baitfish from above the water’s surface, these animals take vision to the next level. But what does the world look like through their eyes? Can they see colors?
You only have to look at a bird to figure out that color vision is very important to them. The bright colors of many birds are a good indication that birds can see each other's fine plumage. It turns out that there is a whole spectrum of colors out there that birds can see, and we can’t. Amazingly, birds are equipped to see in the ultra-violet and near ultra-violet spectrums.
Birds can see more color than we can because they have a fourth type of light-receiving cone in the retina of their eyes. With this extra ability, birds are able to see details in their environment, and on other birds, that we aren’t even aware of.
Continue reading this article to learn more about what birds can and can’t see and how they interact with the colors around them.
Two vibrant Scarlet Macaws flying through the sky
Birds can see all of the colors that we can, and more! This is because birds have something we don't have, a fourth color sensor. Birds are known as tetrachromats, which means they can see in red, green, and blue, as well as in the ultraviolet spectrum. We are known as trichromats since we can’t detect colors in this fourth range.
You may have heard that birds can't see the color blue, but this is really just an old wives tale. Blue is a rather common color on avian plumage, so naturally, it is important that birds can see it. Blue is an interesting color structurally, however, and this might have something to do with the origins of this bird myth.
There are some colors that birds and mammals like us can’t see, however. The infrared spectrum is invisible to most animals, but some creatures like pit vipers and vampire bats are able to detect this light. In this way, these animals are able to ‘see’ the body heat of their prey.
Continue reading to learn more about color vision in birds.
A common misconception is that birds can't see blue, when in fact they can
Birds can see the ultraviolet spectrum of colors, a range that is impossible for us to describe! In addition to the ultraviolet range, birds are able to detect all of the following colors and their combinations:
Birds are probably most alert to the colors of their own species, their most important food sources, and other important things to look out for like predators. Hummingbirds, for example, are attracted to red and orange because bird pollinated flowers tend to be those colors. Orioles also show a preference for orange-colored foods, and these happen to match their own plumage color.
Birds can see a full range of colors that we cannot. Unfortunately, we cannot really describe these colors because they are outside of anything we can perceive. The extra range of colors that birds can see is beneficial to them in a number of ways. The ability to see ultraviolet light helps birds identify potential mates, detect food, and avoid predators.
Interestingly, there are often obvious differences in color between male and female birds that we can't see at all. Male and female blue tits, which are chickadee-like birds, look almost identical to our eyes, but female birds can clearly identify males by the ultra-violet colors of their crest feathers.
Blue tits are not the only example of this unexpected sexual dichromatism (difference in color between males and females). A 2005 study found that over 90% of the 139 bird species surveyed showed visual differences between the sexes that are visible to birds, but invisible to us!
Blue Tits can see differences in male and female plumage that us humans can't see
Birds can see in the dark, although their ability definitely varies between the species. If you’ve ever accidentally disturbed a roosting bird at night, you may have noticed how clumsy they are while flying in the dark. Nocturnal birds like owls and whip-poor-wills, on the other hand, have incredible nocturnal vision, although this comes at the expense of some color vision.
Like us, owls are thought to have trichromatic vision in daylight. A 2019 study involving several owl species found that these birds lack the ultraviolet sensitive cones that most other birds have, but they are nevertheless able to see the ultraviolet spectrum at night.
Birds are said to avoid the color white, but different species of birds are likely to react to different colors in different ways.
One interesting study on gouldian finches from Australia showed that red is a deterrent because it is the head color of dominant and aggressive males of that species. Of course, this isn’t true of all birds because pollinators like hummingbirds are actually attracted to red-colored flowers.
Close up of a Gouldian Finch
Bird houses provide a great place for birds to nest and raise their chicks. Our feathered friends are not looking for color when choosing a nest site but rather looking for somewhere sheltered from the elements and safe from predators.
The size and shape of a birdhouse are very important and will determine which bird species are able to use it. Ironically the most attractive colors for a birdhouse are likely to be the shades that stand out the least. Dull, natural colors like green, brown, and gray are likely to be most attractive to wild birds.
There does not seem to be any universal color that attracts all bird species to feeders. Matching the color of a bird's favored food source can be pretty effective, however, and that’s why red hummingbird feeders are the most popular color.
Researchers in the United Kingdom found that green and silver colored bird feeders were favored by the common backyard birds in that country. Red and yellow were least favored, perhaps because there are no hummingbirds in England!
Interestingly, different species did seem to favor different colors in the UK study. European starlings, for example, preferred blue bird feeders while robins preferred black feeders.
Red is one of the best colors to attract hummingbirds, and why most feeders are red
Green is probably the most attractive color for birds. Simply in the sense that a well-planted, natural garden provides birds with highly attractive foraging, nesting, and roosting sites!
Native plants that produce a variety of brightly colored flowers and fruits will be attractive to both you and your feathered friends.
All birds can see color, but some species can see more colors than others. Owls, for example, do not see colors as well as diurnal birds because their eyes are better adapted for seeing in low light conditions. Sensing the movement of their prey, rather than its color is more important for these nocturnal hunters.
Owls generally don't see colors as well as birds that are active in the day
In some circumstances, birds can be attracted to the color black. The berries of many plant species turn black when fully ripe, which attracts fruit-eating birds like waxwings and American robins. These plants have a mutually beneficial relationship with birds whereby the plant provides a food source, and the birds provide a seed dispersal mechanism.
Many birds are highly attracted to the color orange because it most often signals energy-rich nectar in flowers. Orange is visible and highly attractive to nectar-eating birds like hummingbirds looking to visit plants like the trumpet vine (Campsis radicans).
Birds certainly can see the color blue. In fact, European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) have been found to prefer bird feeders that are blue in color! Birds are often thought to be attracted to their own colors, and as such, blue birds and jays may also be attracted to the color blue.
Birds are not colorblind. In fact, birds have highly developed color vision, and they can even detect ultraviolet colors, something that humans are not able to do.
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