Sensory ecology investigates the information that underlies an animal’s interactions with its environment.
GRAHAM R. MARTIN*
Centre for Ornithology, School of Biosciences, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 2TT, UK
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A sensory ecology framework is used here to seek to assess why flying birds collide with prominent structures, such as power lines, fences, communication masts, wind turbines and buildings, which intrude into the open airspace. Such collisions occur under conditions of both high and low visibility. It is argued that a human perspective of the problems posed by these obstacles is unhelpful. Birds live in different visual worlds and key aspects of these differences are summarized.
When in flight, birds may turn their heads in both pitch and yaw to look down, either with the binocular field or with the lateral part of an eye’s visual field. Such behaviour may be usual and results in certain species being at least temporarily blind in the direction of travel.
Furthermore, even if birds are looking ahead, frontal vision may not be in high resolution. In general, high resolution occurs in the lateral fields of view and frontal vision in birds may be tuned for the detection of movement concerned with the extraction of information from the optical flow field, rather than the detection of high spatial detail. Birds probably employ lateral vision for the detection of conspecifics, foraging opportunities and predators.
The detection of these may be more important than simply looking ahead during flight in the open airspace. Birds in flight may predict that the environment ahead is not cluttered. Even if they are facing forward, they may fail to see an obstacle as they may not predict obstructions; perceptually they have no ‘prior’ for human artefacts such as buildings, power wires or wind turbines.
Birds have only a restricted range of flight speeds that can be used to adjust their rate of gain of visual information as the sensory challenges of the environment change. It is argued that to reduce collisions with known hazards, something placed upon the ground may be more important than something placed on the obstacle itself.
Foraging patches, conspecific models or alerting sounds placed a suitable distance from the hazard may be an effective way of reducing collisions in certain locations. However, there is unlikely to be a single effective way to reduce collisions for multiple species at any one site. Warning or diversion and distraction solutions may need to be tailored for particular target species.