In my previous blog I wrote about the woodcock (Scolopax rusticola) and why this bird sometimes literally crash into buildings. Some readers wondered about the cause. So I decided to write a blog about birds and their eyes. In fact in two parts, because there is quite a lot to write about it. Because eyes are the most important sense of the birds.
The eyes of birds are generally relatively larger than those of humans. If you look at a bird’s skull, you see that a considerable space is occupied by the eye sockets. If human eyes were proportionately the same size, we would have eyes of at least ten centimeters in diameter! Those big eyes are very important for birds. Birds of prey for instance are able to observe their prey from a great distance. And prey animals are able to keep a close eye on the environment to see predators and birds of prey coming. Incidentally, the eyes of nocturnal hunters, such as the owls, are even larger than those of daytime hunters. After all, they must be able to see well in the dark and that requires bigger eyes.
long-eared owl (Asio otus) in the photo. And maybe you have seen a blackbird (Turdus merula) that turns its head to one side, just as if it is listening. But it doesn’t do this to listen, but to view the soil well. Because of the placement of its eyes, the bird sees almost nothing at the front, but sees well on both sides. There are also birds that can move the eyes, such as the bittern (Botaurus stellaris) and cuckoo (Cuculus canorus).
Because of this large overlapping field of vision humans can estimate distances very well, although the one is a bit better than the other. Birds of prey and predators generally have a large binocular field of vision. They need this to be able to estimate the distance to catch prey, in addition to their big eyes to be able to notice the prey.
So back to the woodcock. As I wrote in the earlier blog, the eyes of this bird are on the side of its head. This allows the bird to see almost everything around it without moving its head. It can’t move its eyes either. Each eye covers a field of vision of almost 180 degrees. The bird sees, as it were, a hemisphere through each eye, actually as if looking through a so-called fisheye lens. This allows them to keep an eye on most of its surroundings to see if a predator is coming.
In my next blog I will continue to talk about bird eyes, including something about the retina and how birds handle the refractive index of water.