Journal of Comparative Physiology A

, Volume 192, Issue 5, pp 523–534 | Cite as

Spatial contrast sensitivity of birds

  • Mimi M. Ghim
  • William HodosEmail author
Original Paper


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.


Contrast sensitivity Refractive state Pattern electroretinogram Spatial vision Birds 





Contrast–response function(s)


Cathode-ray tube


Contrast sensitivity


Contrast sensitivity function(s)








Institutional animal care and use committee


Modulation transfer function(s)


Pattern electroretinogram(s)


Spatial frequency





The authors are grateful to Professor Christopher Murphy of the School of Raptor Ophthalmology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, for sharing his knowledge and experience on raptor cycloplegia and mydriasis, and to Drs. Katherine Nepote, Theodore Mashima, and Glenn Olsen for invaluable assistance and advice on avian anesthesia. The authors are deeply obliged to Dr. Vittorio Porciatti of the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute for his PERG expertise. For the many weeks dedicated to assisting us with trapping, we thank Dr. Bernard Lohr, Shannon Bentz, Rebecca Duckworth, and Matthew Gaffney. For the generous loan of subjects, we thank Professor Catherine Carr, Dr. John French, and Professor Robert Dooling. This research was made possible by funding from the Neuroethology Training Grant at the University of Maryland at College Park, National Science Foundation Grant IBN9818054, National Renewable Energy Laboratory Grant XAM9-29211-01, and the William Orr Dingwall Fellowship Foundation. This experiment complies with the “Principles of animal care”, publication No. 86-23, revised 1985, of the National Institute of Health, and also with the current laws of the USA, the country in which the experiment was performed.


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© Springer-Verlag 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of Maryland at College ParkCollege ParkUSA

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