Bird Watcher's General Store

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The Keen Eyesight of Birds

Dear Bird Folks,

I really enjoy seeing the crows in my yard, so every day or so I put out some scraps of bread for them. It amazes me that a few minutes after tossing out the bread, the crows are on it even though there is not a single bird in sight before I toss the bread. How are they able to find the bread so quickly? Are they watching me when I don’t know it?

– Nadja, Eastham, MA


Yes, they are, Nadja,

The crows are watching you. They are watching all of us. Some people claim that the government is watching us. I don’t know anything about that, but I do know that there are two things that watch every move we make. One, of course, is Santa. That guy never takes a day off. If you mess up, in any way, he’s going to know about it and you are going to pay. If you have ever woken up on Christmas morning, like I did one year, and found a case of hardtack under your tree, you can be sure that Santa wasn’t happy with something you did.

Crows, on the other hand, aren’t as judgmental as Santa. They don’t care if we are good or bad; they are only watching us because they know we are slobs and sometimes our slobbiness provides them with a free lunch. For example, one Christmas I accidentally threw a case of hardtack out of my car window and the crows were all over it in seconds, no questions asked.

I wasn’t kidding when I said that crows are watching us. That’s how they find their food. Unlike many mammals, which rely on their keen sense of smell to locate food, birds must use their eyes. With few exceptions, birds have a stinky sense of smell (pun intended). A robin uses its sharp eyes – not its nose – to find the worms hiding on your lawn. Its acute vision enables a flycatcher to lock on to tiny passing insects, and it is their watchfulness that helps crows to not miss a piece of bread in your yard or a flying case of hardtack coming from my car.

Since most birds have a poorly developed sense of smell, they must depend on their eyes for both finding food and avoiding predators. On the whole, they probably can see better than any other vertebrate, including humans, cats or even those famous Seeing Eye dogs. In comparison to the size of their heads, birds’ eyes are larger than most mammals with some birds having eyes that are actually larger than their brains. The ostrich, for example, a bird that lives in wide-open spaces, can’t hide or fly to avoid danger. It must use its eyesight to spot trouble while there is still time to run away. As a result, this flightless bird has eyes that are larger than any land animal, including elephants, bears and wombats, whatever that is.

Even though birds’ vision is excellent, we should remember that there are nearly 10,000 different species of birds and they have made different adaptations to suit each species’ needs. Songbirds, for example, are a colorful lot, thus they have developed the ability to see a wide spectrum of colors. There is tradeoff, however, in having such great color vision; songbirds don’t have great night vision. The nighttime birds, like owls, can see swell in the dark, but they are probably colorblind, which would explain why so many owls wear ties that don’t match their outfits.

One of the things I like about birds is that they never once roll their eyes at me, no matter how bad my jokes are. For the most part, birds’ eyes are fixed in their sockets; they couldn’t roll their eyes at me even if they wanted to. To make up for this lack of eye movement, most birds’ eyes are set on the sides of their heads. They can see forward, like we do, but they can also see to the side, without ever moving their heads. Our weird pal, the American Woodcock, has taken things a step further. Its eyes are set so far back in its skull that, without moving, it can actually see forward, to the side, and behind itself… just like a schoolteacher.

The crows in your neighborhood may not have eyes in the back of their heads, but they have excellent vision. They are always on the look out for the opportunity for a quick snack. Even at a great distance they can easily spot your handouts. Here, in my shop, we are always discovering year old bagels or half-eaten tuna rolls living in the back of the refrigerator. Instead of throwing this ancient food away, or eating it ourselves, we put it out for the birds. Just as you have observed, Nadja, within seconds gulls and/or crows appear from nowhere. Well, not from nowhere. They are someplace in the area, constantly scouring the neighborhood with their keen eyes, just waiting for someone to toss out a piece of bread, a tuna roll or a case of hardtack.