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Behav Processes. 2012 Feb;89(2):143-52. doi: 10.1016/j.beproc.2011.10.006. Epub 2011 Nov 18.

Sensory basis of vigilance behavior in birds: synthesis and future prospects.

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Department of Biological Sciences, Purdue University, 915 W. State Street, West Lafayette, IN 47907, USA.


Birds gather visual information through scanning behavior to make decisions relevant for survival (e.g., detecting predators and finding food). The goal of this study was (a) to review some visual properties involved in scanning behavior (retinal specialization for visual resolution and motion detection, visual acuity, and size of the blind area), and (b) hypothesize how the inter-specific variability in these properties may lead to different scanning strategies. The avian visual system has a high degree of heterogeneity in visual performance across the visual field, with some sectors providing higher levels of visual resolution and motion detection (e.g., retinal specializations) than others (e.g., peripheral retina and blind area). Thus, information quality will vary in different parts of the visual field, which contradicts some theoretical assumptions on information gathering. Birds need to move their eyes and heads to align the retinal specializations to different sectors of visual space. The rates of eye and head movements can then be used as proxies for scanning strategies. I propose specific predictions as to how each of the visual properties studied can affect scanning strategies in the context of predator detection in different habitat types and with different levels of predation risk. Establishing the degree of association between sensory specializations and scanning strategies can enhance our understanding of the evolution of anti-predator behavior.

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