Visual pop-out in barn owls: Human-like behavior in the avian brain. Academic Article uri icon


  • Visual pop-out is a phenomenon by which the latency to detect a target in a scene is independent of the number of other elements, the distractors. Pop-out is an effective visual-search guidance that occurs typically when the target is distinct in one feature from the distractors, thus facilitating fast detection of predators or prey. However, apart from studies on primates, pop-out has been examined in few species and demonstrated thus far in rats, archer fish, and pigeons only. To fill this gap, here we study pop-out in barn owls. These birds are a unique model system for such exploration because their lack of eye movements dictates visual behavior dominated by head movements. Head saccades and interspersed fixation periods can therefore be tracked and analyzed with a head-mounted wireless microcamera--the OwlCam. Using this methodology we confronted two owls with scenes containing search arrays of one target among varying numbers (15-63) of similar looking distractors. We tested targets distinct either by orientation (Experiment 1) or luminance contrast (Experiment 2). Search time and the number of saccades until the target was fixated remained largely independent of the number of distractors in both experiments. This suggests that barn owls can exhibit pop-out during visual search, thus expanding the group of species and brain structures that can cope with this fundamental visual behavior. The utility of our automatic analysis method is further discussed for other species and scientific questions.

publication date

  • January 1, 2015