For the Birds Radio Program: Barn Owl Learning

Original Air Date: Oct. 7, 2002 Rerun Dates: Aug. 27, 2014; Jan. 25, 2011; Aug. 13, 2010; Sept. 11, 2008; Feb. 5, 2008; Aug. 20, 2007; Nov. 15, 2004; Feb. 28, 2003

In labs, Barn Owls can learn complex behaviors incrementally, which has implications regarding both bird intelligence and helping humans.

Duration: 4′47″


You may or may not be able to teach an old dog new tricks, but you definitely can teach an old owl new tricks, as long as the training goes step by step. Eric Knudsen, a . neurobiologist from the Stanford University School of Medicine and Brie Linkenhoker, one of his graduate students, recently discovered that juvenile owls can pick up skills in leaps and bounds, whereas adults must take a series of baby steps.” National Geographic News recently carried a story about their research–you can link to the article from my webpage at

Knudsen and Linkenhoker wanted to learn how quickly Barn Owls could learn to hunt successfully if their visual field was suddenly completely changed. Owls can gauge the precise direction and distance to objects by hearing, but they also depend on vision when light is available. If their visual field was suddenly shifted, could they adjust and learn to hunt when what they were seeing didn’t jibe at all with what they were hearing?

The researchers developed special owlish spectacles that shifted the birds’ visual fields 23 degrees to the left or right, and then measured the responses of the birds’ neurons in a region of the brain called the optic tectum, where visual and hearing information merge. They wanted to find out whether the owls’ brains could rewire the neural circuitry to align sounds with this strange new visual field. Within two months, the juvenile owls had fully adjusted. But even after four months, the adults had adjusted only ten percent as well as the juveniles had.

Then they tried another approach on the adults. Rather than starting with spectacles that shifted vision 23-degrees, Linkenhoker made a series of spectacles that shifted the vision in increments, starting at 6 degrees and then 11 and 17 degrees. With these more gradual shifts, the adults adapted much more readily, most eventually learning to hunt successfully when their vision had shifted 17 degrees, and one even mastering the same 23-degree shift as the young birds.

But so what? Bird brains are obviously very different from mammal brains, lacking much of the folding that makes our gray matter so distinctive, and seeming rather small. But most bird brains are actually just as large as or even larger than those of mammals of similar weight. And more and more research is demonstrating that birds are far more intelligent than was once believed, rivaling monkeys, dogs, and other “smart” mammals in their ability to process information and learn.

Knudsen and his students have been conducting research on Barn Owls for a long time. Although their neurobiology work is intended to illuminate how humans process information, Barn Owls made a good subject when Knudsen was studying how the brain processes sound, because “The Barn Owl is the best at sound localization.” And Barn Owls made excellent subjects in this current study on how adults and juveniles process changes in visual information because their brain maps have been so well studied. The hope is that this study will have implications into how humans can adapt after a stroke if they lose certain neurological skills.

This particular study also gives hope that older people can pick up new skills in a wide variety of fields if we take into account the different way adults learn. We intuitively grasp that adults are more likely to succeed by taking a step-by-step approach to a new discipline or skill, and this study affirms this. It also affirms the value of birds as windows into the human mind. Perhaps one day birds will even give us insight into the human heart and soul.

To read the National Geographic News report about this study, go to