Can birds smell, hear & see colours?


I am particularly interested in garden wildlife which is why I did my Master's degree with a focus on "animal ecology". I am convinced that beneficial insects and wildlife are a sustainable and effective alternative to many of the products we use on our plants. I am also a passionate birdwatcher and rarely go for a walk without my binoculars.

Favourite fruit: kiwi, apple and redcurrant
Favourite vegetables: tomatoes and green beans

Their ability to fly is undisputed but what about the birds’ sensory organs? Can birds smell? Do birds have ears? And how do birds see?

two owls sniffing each other
Most birds do not have a very good sense of smell [Photo: Anake Seenadee/]

The art of flight places birds on a special pedestal in the realm of physical ability. Only a few representatives from other animal groups share this gift. Songbirds also have lovely bird calls and brighten their surroundings with their bright colours. So what other talents do they have? Can birds smell? How well can they hear and how do they perceive the world around them? We answer these exciting questions in our informative article.

Can birds smell?

In fact, the sense of smell is rarely strong in birds. Birds can smell but usually not very well. The sense of smell is used, for example, in the search for a mate, the recognition of prey and enemies, or for orientation but in all these areas it plays only a subordinate role next to sight and hearing. One exception is vultures, which are strongly guided by their sense of smell in their search for carrion – their favourite food – which is more pronounced in them than in most other bird species.

vulture close-up
Vultures are actually able to smell pretty well [Photo: Nick Pecker/]

Can birds hear?

With the beautiful concerts that songbirds give in the morning, it would be a shame if they could not hear them for themselves. And therefore, the answer is also true here: Yes, birds can hear. The bird calls are not there for our pleasure but to send specific signals to conspecifics or even to other bird species. Male birds, for example, mark out a territory with their magnificent song and court a mate within it.

Note: For more information on bird song and the benefits of other bird sounds, see our dedicated article on why birds sing.

Somewhat more difficult to understand, on the other hand, is how birds hear because unlike humans, dogs, and many other animals, they do not have obvious, protruding ears. Not even the long-eared owl, whose appearance has earned it its name, makes it easy for us because the protruding tufts of feathers on its head are purely decorative and not suitable for hearing.

owl on a tree
Owls do have ears but they are less obvious than you might think [Photo: Helen J Davies/]

Therefore, to prove that birds have ears, you have to look very closely. These are located on the sides of the animal’s head and consist only of small openings, usually surrounded by a tuft of feathers and difficult to see without a close examination of the animal.

Can birds see colours?

The sense of sight is probably the most important sense of birds because for orientation during flight, for finding food or for finding a mate this ability is essential. Birds of prey, such as kestrels or buzzards, can see small prey, such as field mice, darting through the field even at a distance of several hundred metres, which becomes difficult for a human even with binoculars.

Birds also have a head start on us when it comes to colour vision because in addition to the classic colour receptors for red, blue and green that we humans possess, birds have another receptor for violet, with which they can even perceive UV light. This means that the world seems even a touch more colourful for birds than it does for us. In addition to the four colour receptors, birds also have another receptor that specifically helps them perceive movement, allowing them to react quickly to danger or moving prey.

colourful bee-eaters in a tree
Are bee-eaters aware of their own colourfulness? [Photo: Naturalism14/]

So birds can smell, hear and even see colours – but when do these senses ever come to rest? Where birds sleep and how they protect themselves from danger and the winter cold can be learned in our dedicated article.