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A bird world is rich in sights and scents

Illustration by Cathryn Cunningham/Journal

Every day we rely on senses of sight, smell, taste, hearing and touch without giving it much thought. Birds also rely on these senses to survive. Here are some of the ways birds experience the world through some of these senses.

The sense of sight is as important to birds as it is to humans. Most birds have excellent vision. Eagles see about five times more detail than humans, and up to 16 times more color. Birds can process images more than twice as fast as humans. This is important for birds of prey like hawks and falcons when tracking their prey at high rates of speed. Birds that have large eyes, like owls, have better low-light vision which enables them to hunt in the dark. Some birds even hunt their prey under water.

The thick-billed murre is one species that will dive up to an astonishing six hundred feet below the surface of the ocean to find food. They are able to locate their prey in total darkness. Researchers are still not sure how the murre does this or what other senses they may be using to locate its prey.

Bird ears are small holes on the sides of their heads. They are not noticeable because they are usually covered by feathers. Bird brains process sound more than twice as fast as humans. Some owls, like the barn owl, can catch prey in total darkness locating their prey by sound as far as 30-feet away.

New research has discovered that all birds can smell. Most smell as well as humans, and some have an extraordinary sense of smell. Many birds’ sense of smell can distinguish males from females, or help them find plants that have insects on them. Turkey vultures have a keen sense of smell that allows them to hunt for food like carrion. Pigeons use a variety of senses, including smell, to assist in their remarkable navigational abilities. European starlings and other songbirds use smell to line their nests with pungent items like cigarette butts to help repel pests.

Birds also have taste buds located in their bills. They experience four of the main tastes that we do. Anyone who feeds the birds has probably noticed birds knocking some seeds out of the way until they find the one they want. This may be based on taste and calorie content of the seed.

Birds are remarkable creatures and researchers continue to learn more fun facts about how they survive in the world.

Mary Schmauss is the owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Albuquerque. A lifelong birder and author of “For the Birds: A Month-by-Month Guide to Attracting Birds to Your Backyard.”


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