It’s a question that many people ask themselves when they see the vibrant colors of nature. Can birds see color? This article will discuss what colors birds can see and how they perceive them. Birds have different eyes from humans, which affects their vision in a big way.
Birds see in color and can see more of the color spectrum than humans and other mammals. Birds have a fourth cone in their eyes, allowing them to see in ultraviolet. This will enable them to hunt more effectively for insects and fruit and also helps them to find a mate and navigate.
Bird vision is the most highly developed and acute sense among birds, as is their keen sense of color. Understanding how these animals see can benefit birders looking to find out more about them.
What Colors Do Birds See?
Birds see many different colors than humans. Humans can see red, blue, and green, and colors and shades made from combinations known as trichromats. However, birds can perceive the familiar rainbow of colors we know and parts of the ultraviolet (UV) spectrum that we can’t see. Birds are known as tetrachromats.
Bird vision is also sharper than humans. Birds can distinguish slight differences between similar shades, so they can see colors that we can’t. Birds generally have four types of cones in their eyes instead of three like humans, and they perceive color differently. Not all birds have four cones, but birds typically have more cones than humans and other mammals in their retinas.
Each cone in the retina has a drop of oil in it. This oil filters out different colors, allowing the birds to see different shades, much like a camera filter. The oil is either transparent, pale, red, or yellow and gives them excellent contrast between colors. This helps birds filter out leaves, bushes, and trees to find their prey and can even help them find fish in deep water. Mammals, including ourselves, do not have this oil in their eyes.
Eagles see through a yellow filter from the yellow oil. This allows them to see subtle and slight shifts in their vision, such as a vole in the distance easier, as it shows the outlines clearer.
Humans can see one nonspectral color, purple. We can see purple when our blue and red cones are stimulated. Scientists believe that birds can see up to five: purple, ultraviolet and purple, ultraviolet and green, ultraviolet and red, and ultraviolet and yellow.
Using a series of experiments, scientists found that hummingbirds can recognize various nonspectral colors. These include purple, ultraviolet and green, ultraviolet and red, and ultraviolet and yellow.
Birds with the best color sense are active during the day. This is because diurnal birds need more ways to filter out colors than nocturnal birds.
As with other nocturnal mammals, nocturnal birds can see better at night due to having more rods in their eyes. Although these do not help them see color, they can see better in low light.
Unlike humans, birds can see ultraviolet light spectrums. Seeing in UV allows birds a different perception of the world and helps them survive in the wild.
How Does Seeing in Color Help Birds?
Many birds survive on a diet of fruits and berries, and their ultraviolet eyesight helps them. Seeing in the ultraviolet allows the birds to see much clearer some berries and fruits against bushes and trees as they reflect UV light. While humans only see different shades of green, birds see many more shades, with leaves being darker underneath and lighter on top. You often see some birds land on a fruit bush and immediately start eating the fruit.
Their color vision can also stop them from eating poisonous plants. Many toxic plants are brightly colored, which birds can spot quickly and easily.
Hummingbirds feed on the nectar from flowers, and there is evidence seeing ultraviolet aids them in finding flowers with the most nectar.
Although many small mammals will try to hide in bushes or under stones when they spot a predator such as an eagle, they don’t realize predators can see their trails and urine in the ultraviolet.
Finding A Mate
Male and female birds of many species look similar when viewed by ourselves, but the ultraviolet spectrum shows differences in their feathers and plumage. Because birds can see in ultraviolet, they can immediately tell the male and female of a species, allowing them to find a mate easily.
Helps Them Navigate
The sun is probably the best-known source of ultraviolet rays. Although we cannot see ultraviolet light, we do feel its effect. Ultraviolet light can penetrate thin cloud cover. This allows birds to find the position of the sun, which helps them navigate.
Choosing Their Eggs
For years, ornithologists and scientists could not work out how birds can tell their eggs from other birds’ eggs, but this comes down to their extended vision. Patterns that show up only in the ultraviolet allow the parents to find the correct eggs, among many others.
Knowing When To Migrate
Although not the only reason for knowing when to migrate, the change in the foliage color helps the birds know that the seasons are changing and that it will soon be time to move to a warmer climate.
Birds can see in color and different spectrums to ourselves. As we can see, it helps them survive in many ways. Their color vision helps them find a mate, see which eggs are theirs, and find food, while also helping their migration and navigation.
Bryan Harding is a member of the American Society of Mammalogists and a member of the American Birding Association. Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Bryan serves as owner, writer, and publisher of North American Nature.