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The senses of birds

Birds > Only the Birds
Fields of view
Fields of view
Fields of view: an eagle has about 45° of frontal binocular vision, with 147.5° of monocular vision on both sides and 20° behind out of its vi-sual range. A pigeon has about 24° of frontal inocular, 158° of monoc-ular on each side, and 20° behind out of its visual range. The woodcock has 10° of frontal binocular vision, 15° of binocular behind it, and 167.5° of monocular vision to either side.

Birds’ active lifestyles require highly developed senses. For the vast majority of species, sight is the dominant sense and the eyes are relatively large. The eyes are generally set to the sides of the head, allowing a wide field of view, (about 300°), presumably useful for detecting approaching predators.

For predatory birds (insectivores and raptors), the eyes are set bill of a kiwi, the delicate curve of a nectar feeder’s bill and the massive bone-shearing beak of a large vulture. In a few species, bills also serve as signals of breeding condition and sexual ornaments to attract the opposite sex.

Birds feet have different shapes and uses
Birds feet have different shapes and uses

In general, they may not have exceptional visual acuity compared with humans. However, birds have a larger field of sharp vision, good color perception, and can also discriminate in the ultraviolet part of spectrum and in polarized light. The ear of birds is simpler than that of mammals, but their sense of hearing appears to be at least as sensitive.

Some species, such as some of the owls, have a disc of stiff feathers around the face that directs sound to the ears, and asymmetrically placed ear openings and enlarged inner ears to enhance discrimination of direction and distance of the source of the sound. Oilbirds and some swiftlets that live in caves use echolocation. They emit audible clicks to help them navigate and locate prey in the dark.

For example, the bills of cattle egrets turn from yellow to orange-yellow in the breeding season and the huge gorgeously rainbow-hued bills of the sulphur-breasted toucans may separate species. Similarly, birds’ feet and legs suit their lifestyle: webbed for swimming; short and flat for ground dwellers; longer and grasping for perching species; powerful and heavily taloned for raptorial species. Stilt-like legs and spider-like toes with a span the length of the bird’s body are a feature of the lily-pad walking jacanas. The legs are almost nonexistent in swifts and other birds that spend much of their lives on the wing, and long and muscular in ostriches and emus that stride and run across the plains. The ostrich has two toes, and a few species such as those that run on hard surfaces have lost the first (hind) toe or it is very small. Most species have four toes but their arrangement differs: in most perching birds, toes two, three, and four point forward and the hind toe opposes them; some species have two toes pointing forward, two back; others can move a toe to have either arrangement; swifts have all four toes pointing forward. Nocturnal species have more rods than cones in their retinas to enhance their vision in dim light.

Wings are less variable than lower limbs, although their different forms can be extreme: much reduced in the flightless ratites, put to good use as fins in penguins, and at their most extended in gliding species that spend much of their lives riding air currents. Not only are there differences bemore forward to give a greater overlap in the field of vision of the two eyes. This increase in binocular vision is important for depth perception. Compared with mammals’ eyes, birds’ eyes are relatively immobile. They compensate by being able to rotate the head by as much as 270° in species such as owls, which have the most forward facing eyes. Their eyes are protected by a nictitating membrane, which closes from the inside to the outside corner, and a top and bottom eyelid. Birds can focus their eyes rapidly, which is important in flight and when diving underwater.

A collection of eggs
A collection of eggs

The great number of sensory receptors and nerve endings distributed about the body indicate that birds’ sense of touch, pain, and temperature is keen. By contrast, the olfactory system is poorly developed and few birds seem to make great use of smell. Exceptions include the New World vultures and the kiwi, which can detect prey by its scent.

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