How Birds See The World As Compared To Humans

Thanks to UV vision, birds see the world in a different way. A very different way.

Human Vision vs Bird Vision

Birds have the amazing ability to see a whole spectrum of colors that are invisible to humans.

Back in 2007, scientists used a spectrophotometer to analyze the colors of 166 North American songbird species which did not have an apparent physical difference between the sexes.

They were amazed by what they found, to say the least.

Image credit: Joel Sartore

From a human’s perspective, in 92 percent of species, both males and females look identical.

However, the study showed that these birds have colors that are simply undetectable by our eye and that they use those colors to differentiate their genders by.

Image credit: Klaus Schmitt

As it turned out, birds are tetrachromats, they see four colors: UV, blue, green and red, whereas humans are trichromats and can only see three colors: blue, green, red.

Hence the differences in vision demonstrated by these pictures.

(Bear in mind, that the magenta UV ‘color’ shown here has been chosen to make it visible for us humans, it is a ‘false color’, as per definition UV light has no color.)

Human Vision vs Bird Vision
Image credit: Cynthia Tedore

In another experiment, scientists placed stuffed male and female Chats in the wild to see how the living birds would react to them.

The wild Chats attacked the stuffed male and tried winning over the stuffed female, meaning the birds were actually seeing something the scientists didn’t.

Human Vision vs Bird Vision

‘Bird’s eye view’ has much more to it than the panorama.

Sources: Nature, NWF, demilked


  1. Birds are able to see in the UV spectrum because they have more rods and cones in their eyes than humans do. I’m sure that they evolved this way so species that appeared monomorphic to humans, could differentiate genders by seeing colors that are unseen by human eyes. This fact is also important in keeping all pet birds happy indoors, by providing they with enough UV light to see with, otherwise they become depressed and begin to exhibit such behaviors as feather plucking and self mutilation! A good UV sun lamp will help a lot!

    • Birds perceive UV light as their eyes contain a cone-type that expresses the SWS1 photopigment – it is this protein that is sensitive to UV wavelengths.

  2. If the birds can only see UV, red, blue, and green, does UV allow them to see the yellow on the bird? Asking because yellow wasn’t mentioned.

    • based on the Response spectra shown in the graphics, neither humans nor birds can see yellow. The color is interpolated by the vision centers of the brain.

  3. I heard the glasses for color blind people only work when the color blind person can see some degree of color. The lens work to make the colors more vivid or distinct.

    • Let’s say you only saw black and white… How could you see colour? You couldn’t, it’s impossible. The same here. Goggles and screens can only show you what you can see.

      • Sorry to inform you sir but there are ways to see color even if black and white is all you had seen. They make glasses to treat color blindness allowing them to see colors they had never seen EVEN IF their eyes lack the fundamentals cones to absorb the information of colors outside of blue/green. There are also goggles that allow people to see UV rays from the sun.

          • IN this case, you can think of it as frequency shifting, moving the invisible ultraviolet radiation into the visible range. No we’ll never see the true colors that birds see because we lack the sensory apparatus to detect infrared or ultraviolet. But you can think of it in musical terms as moving the song to a lower key so it fits your voice. All the notes in the melody remain in the same relationship with each other, but lowered into the capability of the singer. So yes the image above is “false color” but it isn’t created from false data. Our ultraviolet detectors give us an exact map of the colors, from which we can “tune-down” the picture into our range of perception.

          • Do a web search on it — there are several sites that feature people using those glasses and seeing colors for the first time.

        • The goggles for color blind people work by shifting apart the color frequencies. 9 think they work best with green and red and only work for people which have weak cone cells for one of the colors, but for people that are missing the cob3s for a particular color altogether they don’t work.

        • Actually, the glasses (EnChroma is a brand) which let color blind people see don’t “shift” color frequencies, they block some frequencies. Different types of photosensors in our eyes detect only specific frequency ranges. This is represented in the graph in the article. The brain represents each photosensor type as a color. In some peoples color blindness, the sensor has a wider range of frequency than “normal”. When two different photosensors overlap the range they see, that over lapped range is represented as a mix of the two sensor colors. For example red and green overlapping results in brown. So the glasses are designed for the most common frequencies where people have issues with overlap, and block that narrow band of overlap, so that the photoreceptors each see a unique band that doesn’t overlap with it’s neighbours view. more here on how they work, and visual examples…

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    • I truly enjoyed this tidbit of information and the demonstration. But I disagree on one point: UV light does have a color, but you have to be a bird to see it. And what it may look like is anybody’s guess. Philosophically, it is similar to asking, “If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to hear it, does it still make a sound?”

      • I would like to think it would be a sort of high-vibration purple of sorts. I noticed when driving back to Colorado from Oklahoma one spring, how the color of the sky changed so much. It was a cloudless Cerulean blue in OK, but after the long climb up the prairie, a full mile closer to the sun, the sky seemed to be more pale purple, almost vibrating. ( Our UV exposure also gets folks sunburned much more quickly, too! )
        (As to the philosophy of the tree, I always say, Yes, of course. There may not be a human person to hear it, but there are surely a lot of bug and bird people enjoying physics, not to mention the other critters!)


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