Buzzard Buteo buteo, in flight, UK

Bird senses

Birds have a full range of senses, as well as eyesight. They can hear, smell and feel the world around them - and some have a few special tricks of their own.

Super sight

Flying needs sharp eyesight. Birds have to twist and change direction in an instant to dodge enemies, avoid obstacles, catch prey or just keep up with the flock.

A bird’s big eyes take up more space in the skull than its brain does. They are fitted tightly into its skull meaning that birds need to move their heads to see instead of their eyes. 

Some birds have many more light receptor cells (called rods and cones) in their eyes than we do. This gives them sharper eyesight than ours. A buzzard can see 8–10 times farther than we can, and spot its prey from three kilometres away. Birds of prey, unlike many other birds, cannot see UV light in order to make their images sharper and clearer.

Some birds can also see colours better than we can, including UV light. This is why many have developed such colourful plumage to impress each other, or complicated patterns to hide from each other.

Buzzard Buteo buteo, perched on fence post with prey

Different views

Most birds have eyes on the side of their head, which gives them a wide field of view.

A pigeon can see for 320 degrees without turning its head. This helps it to look out for danger and know where its flock is at all times. Some birds, such as woodcocks, have eyes set far back on their head, so they can keep looking out while their head is bent down feeding.

But birds of prey and owls have their eyes in front, just like cats and other hunters. This restricts their field of view, but it gives them a secret weapon: binocular vision.

Binocular vision is when both eyes can focus on one thing at the same time. It makes it much easier to judge distances, which is vital when chasing prey.

Woodpigeon, Columba palumbus, perched on garden trellis. Co. Durham

Hunting by ear

The 'ears' of a long-eared owl are really just tufts of feathers for camouflage. You can’t see a bird’s real ears as these are mostly hidden by feathers, but birds do have excellent hearing.

They can detect shorter and lower sounds than we can, which helps them to hear soft contact calls and recognise each other’s songs.

An owl’s hearing is super-sensitive. One of its ears is set lower than the other, which causes a split-second delay in the sound that reaches each one. This difference helps the owl to pinpoint prey without using sight at all, and swoop down to catch it in total darkness.

Long eared owl Asio otus, peering round pine tree, Yorkshire

Sniffing it out

Some birds - including vultures that scavenge over large distances, and albatrosses that roam the seas - use smell to help track down their food.

The kiwi, which lives in New Zealand, finds its food entirely by smell, and it is the only bird whose nostrils are on the tip of its beak. 

Scientists also think that smell may help some birds to find their way during migration, by allowing them to sniff out approaching weather or detect the land below.

Oriental White-backed Vulture pair perched in tree

Touchy-feely feeding

A snipe’s long beak looks stiff and brittle, but the tip is actually soft and sensitive.

It is a special adaptation that means it can feel and grab a wriggling worm deep under the mud, even when the rest of its beak is closed.

Snipe foraging along a riverbank