Backyard Chirper

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What Do Birds See?

It’s not crazy to assume birds see the world the same way we do. Except for sharper vision and spectacular views (like the one in our header image, which is from a team of Russian photographers), birds appear to see the same world as us, right? Well, not exactly.

In order to understand what the world looks like through a bird’s eyes, we must first break things down into a few categories.

UV Light

A rough approximation on how birds may see with UV light.
A rough approximation on how birds may see with UV light.

Most birds that are active during the day detect ultraviolet light (that means this section doesn’t really apply to many nocturnal species). Whereas we have three kinds of cone cells in our eyes (which are receptors used to detect red, green, and blue), birds have four. This fourth cone cell is particularly receptive to UV wavelengths.

Interestingly, this is how the Window Alert Decals that prevent birds from crashing into your windows work. The stickers are barely visible to us, but much more vivid to the birds, alerting them to the presence of glass.


More Colors

Scientists also suspect that birds can see far more colors than we can. According to YaleNews, birds not only see more colors than we do, but they can also see more colors than they can create.

Birds have a higher cone to rod ratio in their eyes than humans, giving them a much more sophisticated color palette than we have.

Because we can’t actually see through the eyes of a bird, it’s hard for us to truly comprehend what the world looks like to them. (One post said it is like a colorblind person trying to grasp what people with full color vision see.) Generally speaking, it’s safe to assume that since a bird can see more colors and UV light, the world is much more vivid and detailed. According to ornithologist Geoffrey Hill, bright colors to us are probably even brighter to birds.

A fancy chart that shows how starlings have a broader color spectrum than humans.
A fancy chart that shows how starlings have a broader color spectrum than humans.

Wider Range of Focus

We’ve explained how the world looks, but there’s another aspect that really affects how birds see their surroundings. It takes a lot of split-second maneuvering and focus while navigating the skies and small spaces (how birds actually process the visual information is still being studied), but a wider range of focus makes it much easier.

Consider your vision for a second. If you focus on one object next to you, you can’t see the details of much else. Birds have a wider range of focus, meaning they can see  a greater field with greater focus.

Some birds, including birds of prey, have an additional fovea in the eye (two as opposed to our one). This allows a bird to focus on more than one thing at once, including two objects at different distances.

In the end, it’s essentially impossible to recreate what a bird can see because it’s still beyond our grasp. Not only do they see colors and UV light we simply can’t see but they also have a completely different range of view.

Someday soon, we’ll have a better understanding, but until then, we can just guess.

Here’s a good video breakdown of bird vision.

Timothy Martinez Jr. is a writer and freelance journalist. His work has been published in The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Remapping Debate in New York City and other publications. He’s been a bird lover since he was young and currently lives in New Orleans, L.A.

1 Comment

  1. Another reason to provide a special light designed for them to help them see their foods as they would in the wild.

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