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Front Neurosci. 2017 Nov 7;11:619. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2017.00619. eCollection 2017.

What Drives Bird Vision? Bill Control and Predator Detection Overshadow Flight.

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School of Biosciences, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, United Kingdom.


Although flight is regarded as a key behavior of birds this review argues that the perceptual demands for its control are met within constraints set by the perceptual demands of two other key tasks: the control of bill (or feet) position, and the detection of food items/predators. Control of bill position, or of the feet when used in foraging, and timing of their arrival at a target, are based upon information derived from the optic flow-field in the binocular region that encompasses the bill. Flow-fields use information extracted from close to the bird using vision of relatively low spatial resolution. The detection of food items and predators is based upon information detected at a greater distance and depends upon regions in the retina with relatively high spatial resolution. The tasks of detecting predators and of placing the bill (or feet) accurately, make contradictory demands upon vision and these have resulted in trade-offs in the form of visual fields and in the topography of retinal regions in which spatial resolution is enhanced, indicated by foveas, areas, and high ganglion cell densities. The informational function of binocular vision in birds does not lie in binocularity per se (i.e., two eyes receiving slightly different information simultaneously about the same objects) but in the contralateral projection of the visual field of each eye. This ensures that each eye receives information from a symmetrically expanding optic flow-field centered close to the direction of the bill, and from this the crucial information of direction of travel and time-to-contact can be extracted, almost instantaneously. Interspecific comparisons of visual fields between closely related species have shown that small differences in foraging techniques can give rise to different perceptual challenges and these have resulted in differences in visual fields even within the same genus. This suggests that vision is subject to continuing and relatively rapid natural selection based upon individual differences in the structure of the optical system, retinal topography, and eye position in the skull. From a sensory ecology perspective a bird is best characterized as "a bill guided by an eye" and that control of flight is achieved within constraints on visual capacity dictated primarily by the demands of foraging and bill control.


area; binocularity; foraging; fovea; optic flow; retina; visual field

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