Spatial contrast sensitivity of birds

J Comp Physiol A Neuroethol Sens Neural Behav Physiol. 2006 May;192(5):523-34. doi: 10.1007/s00359-005-0090-5. Epub 2006 Jan 11.


Contrast sensitivity (CS) is the ability of the observer to discriminate between adjacent stimuli on the basis of their differences in relative luminosity (contrast) rather than their absolute luminances. In previous studies, using a narrow range of species, birds have been reported to have low contrast detection thresholds relative to mammals and fishes. This was an unexpected finding because birds had been traditionally reported to have excellent visual acuity and color vision. This study reports CS in six species of birds that represent a range of visual adaptations to varying environments. The species studied were American kestrels (Falco sparverius), barn owls (Tyto alba), Japanese quail (Coturnix coturnix japonica), white Carneaux pigeons (Columba livia), starlings (Sturnus vulgaris), and red-bellied woodpeckers (Melanerpes carolinus). Contrast sensitivity functions (CSFs) were obtained from these birds using the pattern electroretinogram and compared with CSFs from the literature when possible. All of these species exhibited low CS relative to humans and most mammals, which suggests that low CS is a general characteristic of birds. Their low maximum CS may represent a trade-off of contrast detection for some other ecologically vital capacity such as UV detection or other aspects of their unique color vision.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / physiology
  • Animals
  • Birds / physiology*
  • Color Perception / physiology
  • Columbidae
  • Contrast Sensitivity / physiology*
  • Coturnix
  • Electroretinography
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Sensory Thresholds / physiology
  • Space Perception / physiology*
  • Species Specificity
  • Starlings
  • Strigiformes
  • Ultraviolet Rays