Spatial attention enables the brain to analyse and evaluate information selectively from a specific location in space, a capacity essential for any animal to behave adaptively in a complex world. We usually think of spatial attention as being controlled by a frontoparietal network in the forebrain. However, emerging evidence shows that a midbrain network also plays a critical role in controlling spatial attention. Moreover, the highly differentiated, retinotopic organization of the midbrain network, especially in birds, makes it amenable to detailed analysis with modern techniques that can elucidate circuit, cellular and synaptic mechanisms of attention. The following review discusses the role of the midbrain network in controlling attention, the neural circuits that support this role and current knowledge about the computations performed by these circuits.