Visual search in barn owls: Task difficulty and saccadic behavior Academic Article uri icon


  • How do we find what we are looking for? A target can be in plain view, but it may be detected only after extensive search. During a search we make directed attentional deployments like saccades to segment the scene until we detect the target. Depending on difficulty, the search may be fast with few attentional deployments or slow with many, shorter deployments. Here we study visual search in barn owls by tracking their overt attentional deployments-that is, their head movements-with a camera. We conducted a low-contrast feature search, a high-contrast orientation conjunction search, and a low-contrast orientation conjunction search, each with set sizes varying from 16 to 64 items. The barn owls were able to learn all of these tasks and showed serial search behavior. In a subsequent step, we analyzed how search behavior of owls changes with search complexity. We compared the search mechanisms in these three serial searches with results from pop-out searches our group had reported earlier. Saccade amplitude shortened and fixation duration increased in difficult searches. Also, in conjunction search saccades were guided toward items with shared target features. These data suggest that during visual search, barn owls utilize mechanisms similar to those that humans use.

publication date

  • January 1, 2018