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Birds’ eye views – a question of reality

“Bird’s eye views” are everywhere; they really are two-a-penny. At the click of a mouse we can view any location on the globe from an aerial perspective. A news story is not complete without looking down on the scene from a helicopter or satellite; a bird’s eye view is now considered essential for putting everything in context.

A finger on a touch pad can glide us across the globe; we can casually sweep from the view that an albatross apparently gets as it flies to its nest site in South Georgia, to what a vulture apparently sees when looking for carrion in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater. The notion that these really are bird’s eye views is deeply engrained. When we use the term “bird’s eye view”, we actually think that this is how the world looks to a bird.

A recent advertising stunt for a new miniature video camera used a tame white-tailed eagle. From a camera strapped to its back, the scene below was filmed as the bird was released from the Eiffel Tower. The strap line read, “The 100% authentic eagle eye view”.

But what did this eagle actually see? Was the video really giving us a glimpse of what the eagle saw? Would a dove, a vulture, or an albatross see the same thing as the eagle? Would any of them see the same thing as the digitised images in the advert?

The key question is do birds, whether on the ground or in flight, see the world through the same eyes as us? Do any other animals see the world as we do? Is our eye view unique?

It is a rather old and fundamental question. First raised by the Greek philosopher Epicurus, it cuts straight to that troublesome idea of “reality”. Pondering how the world appears to other animals asks the most uncomfortable of questions, “what can we actually know about the world?”

eagle view from Eiffel Tower Credit SonySWNS.com Creative Commons The 100% authentic Eagle Eye view
Eagle view from Eiffel Tower. Image by Sony/SWNS from Chapter 1 of The Sensory Ecology of Birds. Used with permission from Graham R. Martin.

Philosophers and artists, and now social media discussions, have regularly pondered the nature of reality. However, these musings are nearly always couched in the terms of stripping away personal and cultural biases. Such stripping will allow us to see things “as they really are”. The assumption is that we need to see things fresh, not how we have been trained to see them. For many people who ponder such questions, the ultimate aim is to experience an epiphany, “to see things through new eyes”. It is the touchstone of every aspiring artist. For some people the quest for new ways of seeing can be achieved with a little help from meditation or drugs. But to me those are likely to obscure rather than reveal.

While the idea that culture and learning poses limits on ways of seeing is important, there is a much broader perspective on reality: one which sees us embedded in our evolutionary history. This perspective sees us as just one type of animal that, like all others, has evolved to gather only certain information from the world about them, information that natural selection has honed to become crucial for the survival and reproduction of each particular species. Crucially, that information is always partial with respect to all that the world offers; it is never comprehensive.

Thus, try as we might to achieve that epiphany, we are trapped in a particular reality that is the product of our evolutionary history. This history has produced a unique suite of muscles and bones which a palaeontologist uses to define us as a species, but that same history has also produced a unique suit of senses that extract, or filter, particular information from the world about us. It is information which ensures sufficient control of our body for our survival and reproductive success.

Modern explorations of the senses of other animals, including my own work investigating the senses of more than 50 birds species, now show us just how specialised our own view of the world is. Reality becomes a very flexible concept when we start to compare the information that we have available through our senses, with what is available to other species. The bird’s eye view soon evaporates into just a lazy metaphor. A camera strapped to an eagle’s back shows us just a view of the world as seen from a camera strapped to an eagle’s back; it does not give us an eagle’s eye view.

The sensory worlds of birds are particularly intriguing because it is so easy to think that what we see, they also see. It is easy to assume that birds see the world as we do; the only difference is they see it from a different location. We are seduced into believing birds apparently share the same world with us. After all they live alongside us and have the same sensible habit of completing activities in day light. When birds are active at night this is seen as something strange or quirky, needing special explanations.

These similarities between us and birds are seen as so obvious that we readily anthropomorphise them. Nearly every TV wildlife documentary portrays birds’ lives as exemplars of human challenges and dilemmas. We should forget these metaphors and try to understand what real birds’ eye views are. It then becomes clear that the information available to every species, including ourselves, is different. Each species defines its own reality based upon sensory information that is both highly filtered and partial.

Featured image credit: Images in photo montage provided by the author and used with permission. 

Recent Comments

  1. David Marjanović

    Well, first of all, birds are tetrachromatic. It’s normal for vertebrates, actually, to have four types of cone cells in the retina that respond most strongly at four different wavelengths; mammals have a long history of being nocturnal, so that placental mammals are down to two types of cones (the original ones for red and ultraviolet – the original ones for green and blue are lost). Old World monkeys including apes (including us) and female New World monkeys, AFAIK, have duplicated the original cone type for red, and a few mutations later one of the duplicates absorbs most strongly in the yellow part of the spectrum (not the green one as commonly claimed) – in short, we’re among the very few mammals that aren’t red-green-blind. (The original cones for ultraviolet now absorb most strongly in the blue part of the spectrum.)

    In short, instead of on three basic colours, the vision of birds is based on four. They see a lot more colours than we do. We can barely imagine the basics of “the 100% authentic eagle-eye view”.

    It goes on. Instead of one fovea per eye, at least some birds have three if I remember that right. This may or may not mean they can look at three things at once. Or six?

  2. allister lehan

    I once talked to author Colin Wilson about this…a higher perspective of knowledge would be like this – was like reading “the outsider” a feeling of a “connected” reality – a great synthesis of perception and a feeling one knew “everything”….

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