birdnote q&a: what senses do birds use to hunt?

Red-tailed Hawk eye Beth Jackson FWSINSTALLMENT NUMBER FIVE in my series of answers to your bird questions centers on how birds who hunt locate their prey, and also some important tips on when we humans choose to feed birds. Ellen Blackstone of BirdNote, the daily public-radio show, will once again be our guide for exploring what’s going on as we look skyward.

Before we get started, the BirdNote backstory: In 2002, the then-executive director of Seattle Audubon heard a short public-radio show called StarDate. “We could do that with birds,” she thought. In 2005 the idea became a two-minute daily public-radio “interstitial” (short program). I recently asked BirdNote to help answer the recent questions you’d asked me.

Parts of Ellen’s answers below are in 2-minute audio clips to stream (all in the green links–or you can read the transcripts at those links if you prefer):

what senses do birds use to hunt?

Red-tailed Hawk © Tom Grey
Q. How do hawks and other hunters such as owls find their prey from such a distance–is it all about eyesight, or is smell involved or sound or what?

A. Sight! Sound! Smell!

Sight: The expressions “eagle eye” and “bird’s-eye view” weren’t coined without reason.

The eye of an eagle is one of the most sensitive of any animal, and may weigh more than the eagle’s brain. Learn more on that.

We do know that visual acuity is keenest among birds like flycatchers and hawks, which must pick out small or distant moving objects. We also know that birds’ eyes are about three times sharper than those of humans. This two-part show from the BirdNote archive goes into more detail: Listen to or read Part 1 and Part 2.

Sound: The barn owl’s ability to locate prey by sound is the most precise of any animal yet tested.

Smell: Diminutive seabirds called storm-petrels are olfactory savants–they can detect the scent of prey from a distance of 25 kilometers! Turkey Vultures can smell a dead mouse from 200 feet in the air. The gray catbird’s sense of smell is more important to its navigation than either orientation using the sun or using the earth’s magnetic field.

when humans feed birds: guidelines

Q. So we humans like to feed birds, a topic that involves some controversy. Who’s right, or is there no right? Should I only feed in winter, or year-round? And what should I feed “feeder birds”?

A. As with so many endeavors, “First, do no harm.” If you’re not going to keep the feeders filled and clean, please don’t feed the birds at all because disease can be spread. Cleaning up regularly under the feeders is likewise important. There is lots of information here about BirdNote’s point of view on feeding.

any other sources of bird information?

Q. Where else can we turn with all our questions about birds? Any recommendations?

A. Audubon has this FAQ page of common bird questions that may be helpful to readers.

All About Birds is a great resource, too. If it’s an online bird guide you need, start there.

When a more heavy-duty online bird guide is called for, try Birds of North America Online. (It’s a subscription site, but it has information about the natural history of most all the birds of…North America!)

next week’s topic, and how to get birdnote

birdnote logoTHE NEXT INSTALLMENT of answers from among the most popular of 150-plus questions you asked me recently will be about nest boxes. My series in collaboration with BirdNote will become a monthly one going forward; if you have questions you’d like us consider, ask them in the comments below.

In case you missed installment 1 of this series, we tackled How do birds make themselves at home—even in winter? Week 2 was about birds on the move: the miracle of hummingbird migration, and on flying in formation. Week 3: on daring behavior, such as when a mob of small birds chase after a bigger one, or a woodpecker drums on my house. Week 4: whether birds mate for life, and how long they live.

You may find answers to other bird questions in the BirdNote show archives, or on their FieldNotes blog.

Meantime, listen to BirdNote’s latest podcast anytime on the player below, or by visiting their website. Subscribe to the podcast or RSS, free. More than 100 public radio stations playing BirdNote are listed here; if you like what you hear, why not ask your local station why they don’t carry it.

(Red-tailed hawk closeup photo, top, by Beth Jackson; red-tailed in flight by Tom Grey.)

Categoriesbird sh-t
  1. Bill says:

    Hawks and owls are truly amazing creatures (and I’m looking forward to listening to the podcasts) but having lost so many chickens and guineas to them, I can’t help but see them as somewhat sinister.

    1. margaret says:

      I don’t have poultry — despite my rural life and love of eggs — because EVERYONE would try to kill that 24/7/365, from hawks to weasels, raccoons to coyotes and who knows what. No way I could deal with all the carnage! So I hear you, Bill.

  2. Florence W. says:

    We recently lost all our pond fish to a Great Blue Heron. This predator didn’t stop coming until every last fish was eaten. I’ve since learned that placing a mirror pond side will scare them away. Believe me when I say that when you see a Great Blue in your back yard next to the pond, they are pretty scary looking and huge. The wing span was at least 6 feet and he was tall. Feeding this bird was a terrible event this winter.

  3. emily says:

    Florence, I have a heron problem, too. I will have to try putting a mirror by the pond. The net is only partially effective and the decoy, not effective at all. I’ve been trying to get a picture of the heron with the decoy. But herons are very wary and it’s almost impossible to sneak up on them.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Emily. My heron visitor lost interest in my tiny garden pond the last couple of years, thankfully. Now that I have said that, I wonder if he’ll head back to see my just for spite… :)

  4. Jason says:

    We have Cooper’s and Red Tailed hawks that make regular appearances around here. They are very noble looking birds. If only I could convince them to limiting their diet to starlings, grackles, and english sparrows!

    1. margaret says:

      I hear you, Jason. A Cooper’s ate a red-bellied woodpecker here right in my view the other day, and I do so love woodpeckers. But everyone has to eat something/somebody I guess.

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