A Bird's 5 Senses

A Bird’s 5 Senses

 February 18th, 2010
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Have you ever wondered how your parrot’s sense of smell, touch, taste, sight and hearing compare to your own?


A bird’s eyesight is the most important of its senses to its survival.  Our bird’s vision, while not as acute as that of raptors, is vastly superior to our own and is adapted to the survival needs of parrots.

Predatory birds, such as the eagle, the owl or the hawk, have wider skulls allowing for forward facing placement of their eyes.  This positioning gives them heightened depth perception which allows them to judge the distance and speed of other birds and animals, which they do with incredible precision.  This advantage helps them locate their next meal.

Parrots have more narrow skulls with the eyes placed on either side of the head.  Since they are a prey animal, this positioning gives them great peripheral vision which allows them to flee to safety when necessary. This advantage helps them avoid becoming the next meal.

In addition to their keen vision, birds also see a different spectrum of color.  Human retinas have cones that see red, blue and green wavelengths.  Birds have an additional cone detecting violet and some ultraviolet wavelengths, making their perception of color much broader than ours.  This allows them to determine the sex of each bird in their flock and is used in mate selection. They also have a receptor called the double cone which allows them to detect motion.

Did you know…

  • that your parrot is able to detect the individual oscillations of a florescent bulb while it looks like a constant flow of light to us?
  • that when a parrot sees something worth studying, it will bob its head allowing it to see the same subject rapidly from different angles?
  • that the avian eye uses a lens of oil to filter out all but certain ranges of light, like sunglasses?

Congo African Grey Parrot


A bird’s range of hearing is similar to ours, although it is more sensitive.  They hear what we hear differently than and perceive it in different ways.

Birds recall absolute pitch.  If you try to teach your bird a song on a piano and always play it in the same octave, they will recognize the song.  If you play the same song, but in a higher or lower octave, they may not.

Birds can hear shorter sounds than we can.  A human can hear a single sound, a musical note for instance,  that is 1/20th of a second long, whereas a bird can hear in increments of 1/200th of a second.  So this means that where we perceive one note, a bird could hear ten.

Did you know…

  • that some birds use echolocation like bats and dolphins?
  • that a barn owl can track its prey audibly without any visual reference?


Birds have a poor sense of taste.  Humans have about 10,000 taste buds, birds have fewer than 100.  Still they are able to discern flavors and do have their preferences.  This is why food texture is so important to many parrots. They make some food choices based on how it  feels, since they may not fully taste it.

Did you know…

  • that parrots love bitter foods?
  • that parrots can’t sense capsaicin in peppers, the chemical that puts the HOT in habanaro?  They can bite into them and not feel a thing!  Just don’t let them kiss you afterward.

Toco Toucan


A sense of smell is better developed in some groups of birds.  The turkey vulture is known to have a strong sense of smell in locating their food: decaying flesh.  Some birds use smell to locate their roosting spots.  Parrots are not among the groups with extraordinary sense of smell, but it is better than that of humans.

Did you know…

  • that some engineers that were trying to stop leaks in a pipeline filled it with fumes that smelled like rotting meat and then watched along the 42-mile pipeline to see where turkey vultures gathered?  They found their leaks.


This is the only sense where a human is on equal footing with a bird.  They have sensory nerve endings that allow them to feel pressure temperature and pain, just like us.

Did you know…

  • that penguins and auklets use feathers to touch?  These birds have evolved using these feathers to navigate in dark or cluttered environments and use them much like cats use their whiskers.

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8 Comments on “A Bird’s 5 Senses”

Jens Mathiesen, Copenhagen  05/16/2010 1:44 pm

I have a very tame Senegal parrot (Verstari subspecies). Though it is totaly familiar with me and is very eager to climb my finger, it scratches a little bit on my finger with its beak and taste carefully with its tongue before climbing my finger. This security procedure is only surpassed if the parrot is in desparate need of contact. Can somebody explain to me whether this procedure is common and what type of material the parrot actually recognize? Dna? Epithelium? Smell?

Patty  05/16/2010 5:20 pm

Hi Jens,
Great question! The tongue is a little bit like a finger. It’s dry, thick and padded with 5 bones running through it ( the hyroid apparatus). Parrots have extra touch receptors in their tongues and use them for exploration. I had the privilege of being allowed to feel the inside of my umbrella cockatoo’s mouth with my fingers one day. Their tongues are surprisingly strong. The bone on the end of the tongue is ridged, which makes it easy for them to manipulate things in their mouths.
With regards to your senegal, I wouldn’t say this is a common behavior, but it isn’t unusual either. A couple of mine are always checking me out with their tongues. He is simply feeling your skin and exploring the surface of your finger. Why he feels the need to this every time is anybody’s guess!

Jens Mathiesen, Copenhagen  05/16/2010 7:21 pm

Hi Patty,
Thank you for your comment! The only problem with your explanation is that my parrots tongue do not touch my finger in the identification process. Only the edge of the beak as far as I can feel. I used a wrong word in my former comment: Please replace “surpassed” with “skipped”!

Patty  05/16/2010 10:34 pm

Okay, I see. Do you smoke, or wear hand lotions or perfumes? Have you ever had to use a topical medication on your hands? Your bird may have stepped onto your hand after the use of any of these (or something else) and had a residue transferred to his feet. It may be the reason he feels the need to check you out before stepping onto your hand. Just a thought…

Unknown  12/05/2011 7:47 am

omg…. i have a lovebird… so does all this apply to it>???// OMG……

jack copeland  07/11/2012 1:55 am

We live in So. Calif. and have numerous wild green parrots. They squak when together, very loudly. If, as the Oarrot Blog sayes their hearing equals ours—why so loud?

oenus rahardjo  01/14/2014 8:53 pm

To Dave womach, my name is Oenus and I am fan of your free flight parrots so much especially Cressi the African grey. But lately I do not see cressi free fly anymore. Could you please tell me why you don’t free flight her anymore? I am thinking of getting an African grey for free flight. I already have BnG macaw. ( please visit my facebook by the name of Pedro bulak laut) .
I would be grateful if you tell me why cressi doens’t fly again.
Thanks alot.

Jamieleigh  01/17/2014 1:22 am

We still fly her quite a lot and produced a DVD recently on our adventures with her. We take our birds out twice a year to fly but missed this last year because of the birth of our daughter. http://www.birdtricks.com/freedomofflight