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October 04, 2013
How Ducks See: The Science Behind Waterfowl Eyesight - 0
Photo: Brian Grossenbacher
The mallards leap from their roost on the Susquehanna River, greeting the rising sun with an anxious chorus of beating wings and excited quacks. They’ve been on the move constantly since departing Ontario, and find themselves desperately hungry and eager to find other feeding ducks. They are the perfect birds to kill.
As they bank back into the wind, there I sit, age 13, clutching a hand-me-down Remington 1100. The greenheads slice the air as they descend—how that sound tears me to pieces to this day—and in my youthful exuberance, I raise my hat brim to look. Thus ensues my first lesson in the wild duck’s powerful vision. Since flaring those mallards, I’ve often pondered how ducks visually process their environment. The science is fascinating. And understanding it can make you a better hunter.
The Eyes Have It
As hunters, when our goal is gaining the attention of migrators or passing flocks, perhaps we should ditch the hail call and focus our efforts on creating the most visible and realistic spread that our resources allow.
Additionally, the retina sports a structure unique to avians known as the pecten—a high concentration of blood vessels that provides superior sensitivity to motion. So, waterfowl’s advanced retinas mandate that hunters remain still, keep hat brims low, and make a good hide.
This aspect of waterfowl vision appears to be driving much of modern decoy design, with the trend continuing toward fully flocked models and UV-dulling paints. However, decoy makers have their work cut out for them: DU says that juvenile drake pintails, for instance, don’t even have the same UV signature as adult drakes.
This color and UV-light sensitivity has also led to the design of at least one new camo pattern: GORE Optifade. Rather than replicating vegetation, the pattern consists of swirled hexagons and other shapes designed to disrupt the ducks’ senses of motion and color. Though I doubt any camo will completely hide a fidgeting hunter, it’s an intriguing concept.