Do owls see better than cats?
The short answer:
The short answer is, it depends. Most owls see light better at night and have a wider range of vision, but cats see color better, and usually see better in daylight, with some exceptions in specific owl species. Owls see best at long distances, while cats see better at short to mid range distances. In some ways, cats and owls share similar sensory characteristics. For example, they both have appendages that help enhance other senses, and compensate in settings with low vision.
The long answer:
There are over 200 species of owls divided into two families. The owl species contain both nocturnal (night hunters) and diurnal (day hunters), as well as crepuscular hunters (active during the twilight hours of dawn and dusk) so there is also a great variation in their individual vision characteristics. However, there are also many similarities. Cats are crepuscular predators.
The dominant sense in all avian species is vision, while the dominant sense in cats is hearing. Birds in general, unlike mammals, but like fish, amphibians and reptiles, have four types of colour receptors in the eye. These give birds the ability to perceive not only the range visible to humans, but also the ultraviolet part of the spectrum, and other adaptations allow for the detection of polarised light or magnetic fields. Birds have proportionally more light receptors in the retina than mammals, and more nerve connections between the photo receptors and the brain.
The owl species have bigger eyes than any other bird. In owls, the eyes make up about 50% of the head, but that means they have a relatively small brain, since the skull is also small. In some small owl species, the eyes nearly touch inside the skull. Like all birds, owl eyes are tubular, and are fixed in the eye socket and cannot move, but the owl can turn his head 270 degrees (compared to 140 degrees in humans) and nearly upside down.
Birds of prey have a very high density of receptors and other adaptations that maximise visual acuity. The placement of their eyes gives them good binocular vision enabling accurate judgement of distances. The center 70 degrees of an owl's vision field is binocular, meaning it can see objects with both eyes, which makes his eyesight much clearer, and he can distinguish small objects at great distances. However, owls are farsighted and cannot focus on objects within a few centimeters of their eyes.
Nocturnal species have tubular eyes, low numbers of colour detectors, but a high density of rod cells which function well in poor light.
The eye of an owl most closely resembles that of reptile species. Unlike the mammalian eye, it is not spherical, and the flatter shape enables more of its visual field to be in focus.
Owls have an asymmetry in the eye's structure which enables them to keep the horizon and a significant part of the ground in focus simultaneously. The cost of this adaptation is that they have myopia (nearsightedness) in the lower part of their field of view.
Owls also use feather movements to focus light and sound, and feather like appendages around the eyes and ears that they can focus in different directions to see and hear better. Owls have keen hearing as well as exceptionally good eyesight.
Of the four kinds of light receptors in avian eyes, two kinds of of light receptors called rods and cones influence how well they see light and color . Rods are more sensitive to light, but give no colour information, whereas the less sensitive cones enable color vision. Owl eyes have almost all rods, and only a few cones.
Birds can also detect slow moving objects. The movement of the sun and the constellations across the sky is imperceptible to humans, but detectable by birds. Some scientists think the ability to detect these movements allows migrating birds to properly orient themselves.
The generally brown, grey and white plumage of the owl species, and the absence of colour displays in courtship suggests that colour is relatively unimportant to owls. Owls can see some colors, but they are mainly attuned to brown and green shades.
Cats have acute sight, hearing and smell, and their sense of touch is enhanced by long whiskers that protrude from their heads and bodies and help them sense shapes they cannot see well. These senses allow cats to hunt effectively in dim light or at night.
A cat's vision is greater at night in comparison to humans, and inferior to humans in daylight. Cats have excellent peripheral vision and their protruding eyes give them a wider angle of vision than human eyes, but much less than owls. Cats see clearly in only 1/6 the light humans need and their pupils can be dilated wide enough so that they take up 90% of the eye area.
Cats blink slower than humans, so they blink only one eye at a time, so they can always see with the other eye. In sunlight, cat pupils close almost all the way, to protect the eye. Feline eyes have both rods and cones, with more rods for vision in dim light, like the owl.
A cat's vision is best between six to 18 feet in front of it. Things at long distances, or close to their mouth, become blurry. A unique feature of cat vision is that the animal is able to see well in both day and night, because their pupil is able to change from an elongated oval slit to a round circle almost the same size as the cornea, while specific owl species seem more specialized in their adaptation to one or the other level of light.
Cats are able to differentiate between green, blue, and yellow, but not red. Color in itself is not very meaningful to cats. The world from the feline view is seen in a soft focus; a cat cannot hone in on details because of the large lens, which functions to gather as much light as possible. Motion detecting rod cells in the retina make cats' eyes very attuned to motion, more than human eyes. The owl's eye is also attuned to motion, due to it's wide range of view.
A cat's brain accounts for 0.9 percent of its total body mass, compared to 2 percent of total body mass in the average human.
The physical structure of human brains and that of cats are very similar. Both have the same lobes in the cerebral cortex (the "seat" of intelligence).
Owls hunt mostly small mammals, insects, and other birds, although a few species specialize in hunting fish. All owls are predators. Cats are both predator and prey animals. Larger owl species will hunt small wild cats and domestic cats as prey animals. Cats hunt birds, but not generally owl species.
The three main reasons animals evolve as predators (the hunters) and not prey (the animals they hunt) are that they are faster and/or can see or hear better than the animals they hunt.
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