Researchers have discovered that barn owls are equipped with neurons similar to humans, which allow them to create mental maps of their surroundings while they fly.

  • Place cells are neurons that fire at a high rate when animals visit a given location 
  • Researchers from the Israel Institute of Technology worked with eight barn owls
  • The researchers recorded brain activity of the birds as they flew back and forth repeatedly. 
  • Certain neurons were seen to fire at specific points along the owls’ flight path

Barn owls have the same special neurons — ‘place cells’ — that let humans make mental maps of their surroundings and these may aid their navigation while flying.

This is the conclusion of a study led by researchers at the Israel Institute of Technology, who recorded the birds’ brain activity as they flew back-and-forth. 

It is known that place cells are present in humans and other mammals, such as rodents or bats. They have also been detected in tufted titmice as they walk.

However, this is the first time that evidence for place cells — which fire at a high rate when an animal visits a particular location — has ever been seen in birds in flight.

The team believes that the presence of place cells in mammals and non-mammals indicates that they evolved millions of years ago.

Barn owls have the same special neurons — 'place cells' — that let humans make mental maps of their surroundings and these may aid their navigation while flying. Pictured: a barn owl

Barn owls have the same special neurons — ‘place cells’ — that let humans make mental maps of their surroundings and these may aid their navigation while flying. Pictured: A barn Owl

The study was undertaken by neuroethologist Arpit Agarwal of the Israel Institute of Technology and colleagues. 

‘In the barn owl — a central place forager that strongly relies on memory to navigate to strategic standing posts and to its roost at night — we found robust place cell representation,’ the team wrote in their paper. 

The researchers used an array high-speed infra red cameras to film six barn-owls (Tyto Alba) flying back-and-forth between 2 perches.

During each flight, the team recorded the owls’ brain activity using a tiny wireless electrophysiology sensor implanted into each bird’s head.

They found that certain neurons in the owls’ hippocampus fired more strongly at specific points along their flight path — and depending on what direction they were going in. This is similar to the way place cells work in rodents.

The lighting conditions in the test room and the movement of the experimenters did not affect the neuronal activity. 

However, the team caution that there could be other explanations for the brain activity they recorded — such as cells that fire after a certain time in the air.

Similar cells were also found in rodents. They are activated at certain points after animals start an action.

University College London neuroscientist Kate Jeffrey told the New Scientist that the team’s evidence for the presence of place cells in owls was ‘fairly convincing’.

She added that such a finding is consistent with emerging findings in other labs that many phenomena we have been studying on mammals have counterparts on non-mammals. This suggests a more ancient evolutionary origin, which goes back over 300 million years.

For Professor Jeffrey, the next logical step — if logistically more challenging, she notes — would be to confirm the existence of place cells in fish.

You can view a pre-print of the researchers article on the bioRxiv repository. It has not been peer-reviewed yet.


The RSPB does not recommend interfering in fledglings’ lives, but the charity stated that there are situations when Britons should help the birds.

Immediate danger

If the baby bird is found on a busy road or path the RSPB suggests picking it up and moving it a short distance away to a safe area such as a dense bushbery.

It must be within a reasonable distance from the place it was found. UK birds have poor senses of smell and won’t abandon their young if touched.

If your domestic pet is seen looking for a fledgling, you should keep it indoors for at least a few days.


Anyone who finds a injured fledgling should contact the RSPB. You can reach them at 0300 1234 9999.

Swifts found on the ground need help

Swifts on the ground require assistance


If a baby bird is found on the ground with no feathers or fluff, it is likely that it has fallen from its nest.

You can sometimes put these youngsters back in their nests. But the RSPB advises that this should only be attempted if you are certain that it has found its home and is safe.

It is important to remember that adult birds can sometimes eject their chicks when they feel an underlying health problem or are dying.

Grounded swifts

You should place a fallen swift in a shoebox. You can give it water if you wrap a moist cotton bud around its beak.

These animals can be difficult to care for so the RSPB recommends that you contact a quick carer. These animals are listed here. 

Baby barn owns should be returned to their nests if they are found on the ground

If baby barn owns are found on the ground they should be returned back to their nests

Chicks from the barn owl

Some people may also run into barn owl chicks. These chicks usually leave their nests before they fly.

According to the RSPB, this is a case where Owlets need help. Parents will ignore those on the ground. They recommend gently returning it to the nest.

Owls don’t have a good sense of smell so they won’t reject a baby if it was handled by humans. This website can help you verify if the baby is healthy.