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For many birds, eye colors change as they age

eye colors
An adult Common Grackle feeds a juvenile. Photo by Bob Garvine/Shutterstock

In the column “Since You Asked” in every issue of BirdWatching, Contributing Editor Julie Craves answers readers’ questions about birds and bird behavior. Here is a question from our January/February 2019 issue. 

Q: Can a bird’s eyes change color?— Erica Cameron, Kansas City, Missouri

 A: The yellow-eyed glare of a hawk, or even a grackle, reminds us that not all birds have dark-colored irises. Next time you see a dull-plumaged young grackle, take a look at the eye color: They are brown. Only months after hatching do they turn pale. The photo above illustrates the difference.

The eye color of many species changes as they age, often from gray or brown to red or yellow. For example, Brown Thrashers start out with gray eyes that turn yellow; White-throated Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, Gray Catbirds, and several woodpeckers have gray-brown eyes that turn reddish brown. A number of raptors, like Red-tailed and Cooper’s Hawks, have yellow eyes that turn red as they become adults.

How the ability to perceive ultraviolet light permits birds to see what human eyes cannot

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Julie Craves

Julie Craves

Julie Craves is an ecologist and the retired director of the Rouge River Bird Observatory in Dearborn, Michigan. She answers readers’ questions about birds in her column “Since You Asked” in every issue of BirdWatching. A tireless researcher and bird bander with a keen interest in the stopover ecology of migrant birds, she is also a personable writer with a gift for making everything she writes readable and entertaining. Her first article in Birder’s World (now BirdWatching), “Forest Fire-tail,” a profile of the American Redstart, appeared in June 1994. Send a question to Julie. Read her blog at

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