Can Birds See In The Dark?

The eyes of birds have long fascinated ornithologists and birdwatchers alike. But can our feathered friends actually see once the sun goes down? If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: Most birds have poor night vision, but some species have adapted the ability to see well in low light conditions.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll shine a light on the visual capabilities of birds after dark. We’ll compare avian vision to human sight, break down the eye anatomy that aids or limits night vision, look at species differences, and reveal how light pollution is impacting nocturnal birds.

Bird Vision Versus Human Eyesight

Photoreceptors and Color Detection

When it comes to vision, birds have a remarkable advantage over humans. While humans have three types of photoreceptor cells in their eyes, birds have four. This extra photoreceptor, called the ultraviolet photoreceptor, allows birds to see ultraviolet light, which is invisible to the human eye.

This ability is particularly useful for birds when it comes to finding food, identifying potential mates, and navigating in their environment.

Furthermore, birds have a wider range of color vision compared to humans. While humans can perceive a range of colors from red to violet, birds can see a broader spectrum that includes ultraviolet and infrared.

This expanded color vision helps birds in various ways, such as identifying ripe fruits or camouflaging predators.

Visual Acuity

When it comes to visual acuity, birds once again outshine humans. Birds have a higher concentration of photoreceptor cells in their retinas, allowing for sharper and more detailed vision. This enhanced visual acuity enables birds to spot small prey from a distance and navigate through complex environments with ease.

While humans have an average visual acuity of 20/20, some bird species have been found to have even better vision. For example, the peregrine falcon, known for its incredible hunting skills, has been recorded to have a visual acuity of around 20/2.

This means that the peregrine falcon can see an object at 20 feet that a human with perfect vision would need to be at 2 feet to see clearly.

Motion Detection

Birds have a remarkable ability to detect motion, making them highly adept at spotting potential threats or prey. Their eyes are specialized to detect even the slightest movement, allowing them to react quickly and efficiently in their environment.

Comparatively, humans have a more limited ability to detect motion. While humans can perceive larger movements, birds can detect even the smallest movements, such as the twitch of a small insect or the subtle swaying of tree branches.

This heightened motion detection gives birds a significant advantage in their daily activities.

Special Adaptations For Low Light Vision

Have you ever wondered how birds are able to navigate and find food in the dark? Well, they have some incredible adaptations that allow them to see in low light conditions. Let’s explore some of their special adaptations for low light vision.

Increased Rod Cells

One of the main reasons birds have superior night vision is because they have a higher number of rod cells in their eyes compared to humans. Rod cells are responsible for detecting light and are particularly sensitive to low levels of light.

This abundance of rod cells allows birds to have a higher visual acuity in dim light, making it easier for them to see in the dark.

Tapetum Lucidum

Another adaptation that gives birds an advantage in low light conditions is the presence of a specialized layer of cells called the tapetum lucidum. This reflective layer is located behind the retina and acts like a mirror, reflecting light back through the retina to enhance the amount of light available for vision.

This helps birds to see better in the dark and also gives their eyes a characteristic glowing appearance when light is reflected from their eyes.

Pupil Shape

The shape of a bird’s pupil is also important for its low light vision. While humans have round pupils, many birds have vertically elongated pupils. This elongated shape allows more light to enter the eye, especially in low light conditions.

The ability to dilate and constrict their pupils quickly also helps birds adjust to varying light levels, allowing them to see clearly in different lighting conditions.

Fovea Position

The positioning of the fovea, a small area of the retina responsible for detailed vision, also contributes to birds’ ability to see in the dark. In humans, the fovea is located at the center of the retina, but in birds, it is positioned off-center.

This off-center placement allows birds to focus on objects without directly looking at them, increasing their field of view and improving their peripheral vision. This is particularly useful when hunting or navigating in low light conditions.

Variations Between Bird Species

When it comes to the ability to see in the dark, different bird species exhibit fascinating variations. These variations can be observed in their behavior, physical characteristics, and adaptations. Let’s take a closer look at some of the most interesting differences among bird species.

Owls and Other Nocturnal Birds

Owls are renowned for their exceptional night vision. With large eyes and a high concentration of rod cells in their retinas, these birds have evolved to excel in low-light conditions. Their retinas are lined with a specialized tissue called the “tapetum lucidum,” which reflects light back through the retina, maximizing their ability to detect even the slightest movement in the darkness.

This gives them a distinct advantage when hunting for prey at night.

Other nocturnal birds, such as nightjars and nighthawks, also possess adaptations that enhance their ability to see in the dark. These birds have larger pupils compared to their diurnal counterparts, allowing more light to enter their eyes.

Additionally, their retinas contain a higher density of rod cells, which are more sensitive to low levels of light.

Differences Between Prey and Predators

The ability to see in the dark varies not only between bird species but also between prey and predator birds. For example, small birds that serve as prey, like mice or insects, have developed excellent night vision as a means of avoiding nocturnal predators.

They have a higher number of rod cells in their retinas, allowing them to detect subtle movements and potential threats in the darkness.

Predatory birds, on the other hand, have adapted to detect their prey more efficiently. For instance, some raptors, including eagles and hawks, have a greater number of cone cells in their retinas, which are responsible for color vision and visual acuity.

This adaptation helps them spot their prey during the day when they are most active.

Migration Navigation at Night

Many bird species undertake long-distance migrations, sometimes covering thousands of miles. Some of these migrations occur at night, and birds rely on various navigational cues to guide them on their journey.

While the exact mechanisms are not fully understood, researchers believe that birds use a combination of celestial cues, such as the stars and the moon, as well as magnetic fields to orient themselves.

Studies have shown that birds such as thrushes and warblers can detect and interpret magnetic fields, helping them navigate during their nocturnal migrations. This remarkable ability allows them to travel with great precision and accuracy, reaching their destinations without getting lost.

Understanding the variations between bird species in terms of their ability to see in the dark provides valuable insight into their behavior and survival strategies. Whether it’s the exceptional night vision of owls, the specialized adaptations of prey and predatory birds, or the navigation skills of migratory species, birds continue to amaze us with their remarkable abilities.

Threats to Birds’ Night Vision

Light Pollution

One of the major threats to birds’ night vision is light pollution. As cities and urban areas continue to expand, the amount of artificial light at night has also increased. This excessive artificial light can interfere with birds’ ability to navigate and find food during the night.

Birds rely on natural light cues from the moon and stars to guide them, but bright city lights can disrupt these cues and confuse their internal navigation systems. This can lead to disorientation and increased vulnerability to predators.

According to the National Audubon Society, millions of birds are affected by light pollution each year. Bright lights can cause birds to become disoriented and collide with buildings or other structures. They may also become attracted to illuminated windows, mistaking them for open spaces.

To mitigate this threat, it is important for cities and individuals to use responsible lighting practices, such as using shielded lights and reducing unnecessary outdoor lighting.

For more information on light pollution and its impact on birds, visit the Audubon Society’s website.

Habitat Loss

Another threat to birds’ night vision is habitat loss. As natural habitats are destroyed or altered by human activities, birds lose the dark, natural environments they depend on for foraging and resting during the night.

This loss of habitat can disrupt their normal behaviors and make it more difficult for them to see and navigate in the dark.

According to a study published in the journal Nature, habitat loss has led to a decline in the populations of many bird species worldwide. The loss of dark, undisturbed habitats can have a significant impact on their ability to survive and thrive.

Protecting and restoring natural habitats is crucial for preserving birds’ night vision and overall well-being.

Window Collisions

Window collisions are another threat to birds’ night vision. Birds may not see glass windows as barriers and can fly into them, causing injury or death. This is especially common during the night when birds may be attracted to bright lights and mistakenly fly towards them.

According to the American Bird Conservancy, up to a billion birds die each year in the United States alone due to window collisions. To prevent these collisions, there are various measures that can be taken, such as using window decals or films that make the glass more visible to birds, keeping blinds or curtains closed at night, and placing feeders and plants away from windows.

For more information on preventing window collisions and protecting birds, visit the American Bird Conservancy’s website.


While many birds don’t see well in the dark, select species have evolved remarkable night vision capabilities. Understanding how birds use their specialized eyes reinforces appreciation for the diversity of avian lifestyles.

However, increasing light pollution is making the night sky brighter, threatening birds’ natural rhythms.

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Can Birds See in The Dark

Can Birds See in The Dark? Focusing in On The Truth

Have you even been out at night and heard a bird calling in the dark? Perhaps you have seen an owl swooping past your bedroom window during the small hours? Ever wondered how it is possible for birds to see through the gloom? Then you’ve come to the right place!

Although all birds have incredibly good eyesight, only some birds are actually adapted to seeing in the dark. These species, such as owls and nightjars, have specialised eyes with features like reflective layers and a proliferation of particular photoreceptors. Traits like these enable nightbirds to glide around and hunt during the darkest of nights!

Today we’ll be exploring bird eyesight, from the anatomy of a bird’s eye to the evolutionary reasons for the outstanding night vision of some species. Let’s gaze deep into the world of bird vision…

Bird eye anatomy

As visual predators and flying organisms, it is essential for birds to possess good eyesight in order to successfully hunt for food and avoid crashing into objects. In fact, birds have the best vision of all vertebrate groups, and the largest eye-to-body-size ratio of all animal groups – very impressive claims!

Although there are some similarities between bird vision and human vision including a comparable internal anatomy, and some of the same structures, there are crucial differences that make bird vision far superior. These include:

  • The pecten oculi – a structure unique to birds. This is a group of blood vessels within the eye which helps to sharpen a bird’s eyesight and provide protection against harmful UV rays. (Read about this in more detail here!)
  • Four cones in the retina rather than three – this helps the bird to detect differences in color, and more color shades than humans can see. This makes birds tetrachromats, whereas we are trichromats – hence we can only see the base colors red, blue and green.
  • A flatter eyeball shape compared to a human eyeball – this helps a bird to focus more quickly and accurately within different visual fields.
  • Different lens location – the lens if further forward in a bird eyeball compared to a human eyeball. This increases the size of the image the retina receives.
  • Larger pupils – this means more light is able to enter the eye, and is a key reason for greater night vision compared to humans.
  • Vastly more photoreceptors – a bird’s fovea (the cells inside the retina) contain, on average, 400,000 photoreceptor cones for every square millimetre (400,000 cones mm-2). Whereas human eyes contain half that amount!

Check this out for some awesome avian eye diagrams, and images comparing human eyesight with bird eyesight.

For an insight into how birds are able to see in darker conditions, we need to take a closer look at their color perception abilities…

Color perception and motion detection

The enhanced ability of a bird to see a greater range of the UV spectrum than most other animals enables them to spot prey and potential predators, and even to differentiate between one another.

In addition to this, they possess magnetoreception – an incredible perception ability whereby they are able to navigate using the geomagnetic field! This helps them to detect locations, directions and altitudes. Magnetoreception helps birds to migrate such as Autumn Bramblings which fly south from Scandinavia and Russia to avoid harsh winter conditions.

Color perception and motion detection
Coachella Valley Preserve

Birds can move much faster than humans using their agility to swoop in and catch prey, or to dart away from danger. So it makes sense that a bird’s motion detection abilities are also faster. During continuous movement, birds can see up to 100 Hertz whereas humans can only see up to 60 Hertz of movement. Conversely they are able to see much slower moving objects which the human eye fails to pick up (find out more here).

However, most birds are diurnal – they are active during the daytime – therefore, their vision is adapted more specifically to daylight conditions. Although they are still able to see better in the dark compared to us, it is the nocturnal birds who have the upper hand.

Nocturnal birds with night-vision

As we have so far discovered, bird eyesight is a force to be reckoned with. But what about birds who are active during the night? How does the anatomy of a bird’s eye adapt to dark conditions? This is where the specialist nocturnal species come in!

The main difference between diurnal and nocturnal bird vision lies in the number of rod cells within the retina. Rod cells are the type of photoreceptor cell that are responsible for letting light into the eye and aiding animals in being able to see during low light conditions. They also give animals peripheral vision because they are concentrated on the outer regions of the retina.

Other adaptions in the eyes of nocturnal birds include:

  • Larger eyeballs
  • Very few or complete absence of cone cells (the other kind of photoreceptor cell, responsible for color and sharpness perception, primarily during the daytime). Cone cells require high light levels to function successfully. Most nocturnal birds have adapted to night-time light levels, and therefore do not require cone cells.
  • Ever seen the eyes of a nocturnal creature glowing back at you in the dark? Or even your pet cat with scary, shining eyes? This effect is caused by the tapetum lucidum – a reflective layer on the back of the retina. The tapetum lucidum maximises the amount of light the photoreceptor cells receive, helping nocturnal birds to see in the dimmest conditions.
Nocturnal birds with night-vision
Coachella Valley Preserve

It is important to note that even nocturnal birds who are most active during the darkest times cannot see in complete darkness. They require at least a little light for their plenteous rod cells to function optimally.

The advantages of night-vision

  • Lowered competition – most birds are diurnal, so nocturnal birds do not have such strong competition when hunting for prey
  • Less ambient noises compared to the day-time – this can help night-birds listen for their prey, and for danger. It is also an advantage for birds which sing at night; they can be more easily heard at longer distances.
  • Avoiding predation – some birds choose to migrate at night to avoid day-time predators. Nocturnal birds can steer clear of day-time hunters like wolves which mostly hunt in the day.

Let’s focus in on a couple of examples of prime nocturnal bird groups…

Nocturnal bird groups


Perhaps the first kind of bird you think of when listing nocturnal birds, owls are a classic night-prowling group. Nocturnal owls are incredibly unique in that they have tubular-shaped eyeballs. This means they cannot move their eyes around like we can, so they make up for it with an impressive range of motion in the neck muscles. Most species can swivel their heads to view a 270° field without moving their bodies!

With incredibly large eyes (3% of their entire body weight! Compare this to the 0.0003% of human body weight our eyeballs account for!) and incomparable far-sight, an owl makes a dangerous night-time predator. Their near-sight is relatively weak, as they specialise in spotting and swooping in on prey like small mammals, reptiles and amphibians from a distance.

When they get close to catching prey, whisker-like hairs surrounding their beaks act as motion-sensors, taking over from their visual proficiency. They can also protect their precious eyes using one of their 3 eyelids! Yes, one fascinating fact is that all birds possess 3 eyelids. One eyelid moves over the eyeball when a bird blinks, one is used when a bird is sleeping, and the other – the nictating membrane – can be drawn over when a bird is in close proximity to its prey. This is vital as owls will swoop to the ground amongst the undergrowth to pin their prey down.

Owl eye color

Usually, a nocturnal owl will have dark brown or black eyes, like the Barn Owl. Eye color does not enhance their night-stalking habits but is an evolutionary adaption which camouflages them against the night.

evolutionary adaption
Credit: Instagram

Some owls are crepuscular – this means that they hunt during low light conditions at dawn and dusk. These species mostly have piercing orange eyes, like the Eurasian Eagle Owl.

Diurnal owls mostly have yellow eyes. Species like the Snowy Owl have incredible hearing as well as advanced eyesight. They specialise in ‘sounding out’ prey in undergrowth or even beneath snow!


Credit: Instagram

This group of birds can be nocturnal or crepuscular. They hunt in the dark, catching night-time flying insects on the wing. During the day, Nightjars are camouflage experts with their squat form and mottled brown plumage.

Nightjars can be found all over the world, but are called Nighthawks in North America, or Goat Suckers due to their mythical reputation that they could swoop in and steal milk straight from a Goat’s teat! This myth is based on their spookily silent flight, and the fact that people noticed they often flew close to livestock. Contrary to popular belief, this is not to steal milk, but to collect the insects that are attracted to livestock!

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