Bird Senses and How They Use Them

Owl Eye Closeup

Tony Hisgett / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

How well do birds see? How do birds hear? Can birds smell? Can their feathers feel touch? Do they taste different things? Birds depend on their five senses for survival, and bird senses have adapted to give birds the edge they need to thrive.

Understanding Bird Senses

Birds have the same five senses humans do—sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell—but each one is specialized to help birds survive. While the acuity and usefulness of a bird's exact senses depend on its species, all bird senses share certain characteristics.

Bird Sight

Eyesight is a bird's most critical sense and the one it relies on the most for flight, evading predators, and finding food. Birds have a thicker retina than humans, and their eyes are larger in proportion to their head size. They have much denser rods and cones, the "seeing" cells, packed on the retina, giving them superior vision in both black-and-white and color. The range of colors birds see is not much greater than humans, but some species, such as hummingbirds, can see ultraviolet colors.

Where birds' eyesight truly excels is in the perception of motion and detail. Birds can see small motions or tiny details 2-3 times better than humans, which can help them find food more easily or see the stealthy approach of a predator. In many birds, the eyes are positioned further apart on the head, giving them a wider field of view than humans. Birds with eyes on the sides of their head, such as most songbirds, can nearly see directly behind themselves, which can be useful for detecting predators and evading attacks.

Because their vision is so critical, birds have an inner nictitating membrane that helps protect their eyes and cleans them frequently. During a fight birds often spread their wings to protect their eyes, and when attacking, they know instinctively to go for the eyes of their adversary.

UV Flower
Hummingbirds see flowers in ultraviolet. Thomas / Flickr / CC by-SA 2.0

Bird Hearing

Hearing is birds' second most important sense, and their ears are funnel-shaped to focus sound. The ears are located slightly behind and below the eyes, and on most birds they are covered with soft feathers called auriculars for protection. On bald birds, however, the ears can often be seen as small holes on the sides of the head. The shape of a bird's head can also affect its hearing, such as owls, whose facial discs help direct sound toward their ears. The confusingly named ear tufts of many owls and other birds, however, have nothing to do with hearing.

Birds hear a smaller frequency range than humans, but they have much more acute sound recognition skills. Birds are especially sensitive to pitch, tone, and rhythm changes and use those variations to recognize other individual birds, even in a noisy flock. Birds also use different sounds, songs, and calls in different situations. Recognizing the different noises is essential to determine if a call is warning of a predator, advertising a territorial claim, or offering to share food. Many birders study those calls and birding by ear can be useful for not only identifying birds but also understanding their behavior.

Some birds, most notably oilbirds, also use echolocation, just as bats do. These birds live in caves and use their rapid chirps and clicks to navigate through dark caves where even sensitive vision may not be useful enough to find their way.

Turkey Vulture Portrait
Ear holes are easier to see on bald birds like vultures. Russ / Flickr / CC by 2.0

Bird Touch

Birds do not use touch as extensively as humans, but it is still a vital sense, particularly for flight. Birds are incredibly sensitive to changes in air temperature, pressure, and wind speed, and those changes are transferred down the feathers to extensive nerves in the skin. Some birds have special feathers, called rictal bristles, around the bill that may also serve a purpose for touch when feeding on insects or drumming into the wood, providing extra sensitivity around the bill and face. Mutual preening is an important part of courtship behavior for many bird species, and it may be related to a sense of touch as well since the birds are manipulating one another's feathers. No feathers, however, actually have nerve endings, but they do transmit touch to nerves in the skin.

Birds have fewer nerves in their legs and feet, which makes them less sensitive to extreme cold and allows them to perch or stand on icy or hot surfaces without difficulty. Some birds have extremely sensitive touch receptors in their bills, which allows them to easily feed when probing through mud, water, or other materials. This is particularly prominent in shorebirds and wading birds with long, specialized bills.

Downy Woodpecker
Downy woodpeckers have rictal bristles. Matt MacGillivray / Flickr / CC by 2.0

Bird Taste

Birds do have a sense of taste, but it is not well refined. Depending on the species, birds may have fewer than 50 or up to roughly 500 taste buds, while humans have 9,000-10,000 taste buds. Birds can taste sweet, sour, and bitter flavors, and they learn which of those tastes are the most suitable and nutritious food sources. The sensitivity to different tastes varies by species, but most birds use other senses, sight and hearing most prominently, to locate the best foods.

Because of their unrefined tastes, when birds show a preference for certain foods, they're often relying on other factors. A bird may choose one food over another not because of taste, but because it is easier to acquire, there is less competition, their bills are better equipped for eating it, or it has better nutrition for their dietary needs.

Fieldfare Eating Berries
Birds can taste some sweetness. Jo Garbutt / Flickr / CC by 2.0

Bird Smell

The sense of smell is the least developed sense for most birds. Most bird species have very small olfactory centers in their brains, and they do not use smell extensively. This debunks the myth that nesting birds will reject a fledgling that has been handled by humans: Songbirds cannot detect the human scent.

There are some bird species, however, that have much better-developed senses of smell. Vultures, kiwis, honeyguides, albatrosses, petrels, and shearwaters all use their keen sense of smell to locate food sources. These birds can often smell food from great distances, even when the odor may not be noticeable to humans.

Eurasian Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus) in the game reserve, feeding station, Province of Lleida, Spain
Vultures smell rotting carcasses from miles away. Sylvain Cordier / Getty Images

Why Bird Senses Matter

By understanding bird senses, birders can learn about bird behavior and how to make the most of their birding in the field and the backyard.

  • Because birds see so well, it is important to wear appropriate clothing to go birding, including neutral colors. Adding the right colors to a backyard can also help attract birds by triggering their keen eyesight.
  • Because of birds' exceptional hearing, quiet pishing can be useful for finding birds and attracting their attention. Loud, sudden noises, however, can easily scare birds away. Cell phone ringtones, barking dogs, and loud games should all be minimized around birding areas.
  • Never touch a wild bird, as a harsh hand could damage their touch receptors and hinder their flight. Only the very lightest, gentlest touches should be used if necessary to assist an injured bird. Feathers should never be plucked out, or else the bird's nerves may be extensively damaged.
  • Clean bird feeders are essential since birds may not taste if the food has begun to spoil and may be dangerous. Similarly, always discard any birdseed or other food that shows signs of spoiling such as mold or another fungus.
  • Choosing aromatic plants for landscaping will not attract birds. Instead, plan bird-friendly landscaping with plants that double as food sources and safe shelters. Many top nectar flowers for hummingbirds, for example, are those with the least aroma.

Birds have incredible senses, and understanding how they use their five senses is a key step in helping birds survive and enjoying them at every level of birding.

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