Avian influenza virus strains representing most hemagglutinin (HA) subtypes were compared with human influenza A (H1N1,H3N2) and B virus isolates, including those with no history of passaging in embryonated hen's eggs, for their ability to bind free N-acetylneuraminic acid (Neu5Ac) and sialylollgosaccharides in a competitive binding assay and to attach to gangliosides in a solid-phase adsorption assay. The avian viruses, irrespective of their HA subtype, showed a higher affinity for sialyl-3-lactose and the other Neu5Ac2-3Gal-terminated oligosaccharides and a lower affinity for sialyl-6-lactose than for free Neu5Ac, indicative of specific interactions between the HA and the 3-linked Gal and poor accommodation of 6-linked Gal in the avian receptor-binding site (RBS). Human H1 and H3 strains, by contrast, were unable to bind to 3-linked Gal, interacting instead with the asialic portion of sialyl-6-(N-acetyllactosamine). Different parts of this moiety were recognized by H3 and H1 subtype viruses (Gal and GlcNAc, respectively). Comparison of the HA amino acid sequences revealed that residues in positions. 138, 190, 194, 225, 226, and 228 are conserved in the avian RBS, while the human HAs harbor substitutions at these positions. A characteristic feature of avian viruses was their binding to Neu5Ac2-3Gal-containing gangliosides. This property of avian precursor viruses was preserved in early human H3 isolates, but was gradually lost with further circulation of the H3 HA in humans. Consequently, later human H3 isolates, as well as H1 and type B human strains, were unable to bind to short Neu5Ac2-3Gal-terminated gangliosides, an incompatibility that correlated with higher glycosylation of the HA globular head of human viruses. Our results suggest that the RBS is highly conserved among HA subtypes of avian influenza virus, while that of human viruses displays distinctive genotypic and phenotypic variability.