Have you ever wondered what it would be like to look at the world through a duck’s eyes? As inquisitive backyard duck parents, we’ll share everything we’ve learned about duck eyesight so you can better understand how ducks see the world!
What are our ducks looking at?
Every evening, we let our ducks out of their backyard (no, it’s not “our” backyard) to forage our edible landscape. As they’re foraging, we’ll often notice them suddenly cock their heads to the side and look up towards the sky.
What are they looking at? Is it a bird, a plane, or Super Duck?
Sometimes, it’s an easy-to-spot hawk or vulture circling relatively close overhead. (No, we’ve never lost a duck to a hawk of other predator for reasons you can read about elsewhere.)
However, other times we have to strain our own eyes to their limits to detect what our ducks see… typically an airplane or raptor so far away our human eyes barely register it as a dot.
Our experiences living with ducks made us wonder how they see the world compared to us humans. Since you’re apparently curious about the same questions, we’ll share what we’ve learned with you!
9 amazing duck eyesight facts
How does the world look to a duck? How does duck eyesight compare to human eyesight?
Below are nine amazing duck eyesight facts that will answer these questions and make you wish you could see the world through the eyes of a duck:
1. Due to their eyes’ placement, shape, and functionality, ducks have a 360° field of vision in the horizontal plane.
By comparison, humans have a 180° field of vision.
Since overhead objects above their horizontal field of vision are less clear (such as high-flying birds of prey), ducks have to tilt their heads to bring them into focus.
2. Ducks can see distant objects 2.5-3 times better than humans.
Those fuzzy dots we see high above us when our ducks are looking skyword? To a duck, they clearly see the outline of a high altitude plane or bird of prey, allowing them to more easily detect danger from afar.
3. In ducks’ eyes, muscles can adjust both the lens AND the cornea.
Muscles in the human eye can only adjust the curvature of the lens (not the cornea) in order to facilitate clearer vision of an object. This means ducks’ long-distance vision is somewhat akin to looking through two sets of binoculars instead of one.
4. Ducks have crystal clear vision underwater.
Another benefit of being able to adjust the lens and cornea of their eyes: ducks have clear underwater vision. This helps them better see and nab food while dabbling or diving.
5. Ducks’ eyes are far more sensitive to motion than human eyes.
We see our indoor fluorescent grow lights as a constant, streaming light. However, a duck’s eyes are sensitive enough to see them as they actually are: rapidly pulsating flashes.
In addition to being better able to see the slightest movement of a lurking predator (or a human hunter), this adaptation may also assist in starlight-navigated migrations.
Ducks’ extraordinary visual sensitivity to motion is owing to an eye structure unique to birds called the pecten oculi, or simply the pecten. The pecten is a highly concentrated set of blood vessels.
By contrast, blood vessels in the human eye are distributed throughout the retina.
6. Ducks see colors MUCH more vibrantly than we do.
The iridescent blue-purple wing bars on our Welsh Harlequin ducks and vibrant green head on our drake (and transsexual hen) appear strikingly beautiful to us. However, to our ducks’s eyes, those vibrant colors are turned up by several orders of magnitude.
Perhaps it’s a bit like looking at the world through an oversaturated Photoshop image.
Vibrancy of feather coloration is also used by ducks to display age, sexual maturity, and reproductive potential. While these differences in feather coloration might not be within our visual grasp, our ducks see them as clearly as we see flashy jewelry, fancy cars, and Instagram follower counts. Sexy beasts.
7. Ducks can’t see at night, but they can see well at dawn and dusk.
At dawn and dusk, the world might appear dark and fuzzy to us humans, but not to a duck. That’s because ducks’ eyes are able to see ultraviolet light (UV) light far better than humans can.
For reference, UV light ranges from 10 to 400 nanometers (nm). Until recently, it was thought that humans couldn’t see any UV light and could only see wavelengths between 400 to 700 nm. However, in 2018, University of Georgia researchers discovered that humans (especially when young) can see some UV light starting around 315 nm.
8. Ducks have tetrachromatic vision and UV forcefields, giving them “four-dimensional” color vision — without eye damage.
Building on ducks’ ability to see more UV light… It’s pretty hard to convey how uniquely amazing tetrachromatic vision is to us humans since we have trichromatic vision.
As one research paper on avian eyesight put it:
“Birds’ vision is tetrachromatic: Most have long-, medium-, and short-wavelength cones similar to those of humans, but in addition have a cone type enabling them to detect wavelengths in the near ultraviolet range (300–400 nm). Birds also possess a “double cone” whose function is not clearly understood, and retinal oil droplets containing carotenoid pigments that help screen out extraneous wavelengths. The avian lens lets through UV light, but potential for damage from excess UV is limited by the oil droplets.
It is difficult to conceive what it would be like to have four-dimensional color vision. Birds “have this depth of richness that we can’t begin to imagine,” says Richard Prum, of the University of Kansas. “When my ornithology students ask ‘What does this color look like to a bird?’ I have to answer, ‘You will never know, you cannot know.’ It’s like asking what the music of bats sounds like.”
9. Ducks have a third eyelid called a nictitating membrane.
We humans only have two eyelids. Ducks — and many other animals — have a third eyelid called a nictitating membrane. (Be honest: if your eyes were as amazing as ducks’ eyes, you’d want a third eyelid to protect them too!)
Word geeks: “nictitating” is derived from the Latin word nictare, which means “to blink”.
Nictitating membranes are almost translucent; when fully extended they make a bird’s eye look like it has cataracts. Rather than moving vertically like their other two eyelids, nictitating membranes in ducks’ eyes move horizontally across the eye surface.
The primary function of the third eyelid is protection, like a windshield on a car or submarine. Whether a duck’s head is underwater, foraging through sharp reeds, or flying at high speeds through the air, this membrane provides protection without causing a significant loss of vision. It also helps clear debris out of their eyes while keeping them lubricated.
The downside of duck eyesight?
If you’re now feeling a bit humiliated and envious by comparing your eyesight to a duck’s, don’t fret. Ducks do have distinct visual disadvantages to us humans…
Monocular vs binocular vision
As apex predators, our eyes are positioned on the front of our heads. Each eye has an overlapping field of vision which helps give us really good depth perception. This is referred to as binocular vision.
Ducks’ eyes are positioned on the sides of their head so they can have as large a field of vision as possible to better evade being eaten by predators. The visual field of one eye has no overlap with the visual field of the other eye, which is referred to as monocular vision. This means their depth perception — the ability to tell how far away an object is — is not nearly as good as ours.
Humorously, the location of ducks’ eyes also causes them to be rather clumsy animals when walking on land. Having oars for feet (aka flippers) doesn’t help either.
Our ducks often trip and stumble on objects right in front of them, especially when they’re in a rush and not turning their heads from side to side as they go.
Now before you get all cocky about your binocular vision, know that monocular ducks can close one eye and put half their brains to sleep while still keeping one eye open and half their brain awake. Yep, more proof of ducks’ superiority!
On that note, check out these 9 amazing duck facts that will blow your human mind if you want to be even more in awe of ducks. (Eyes aren’t the only amazing thing about ducks!)
Duck eyesight FAQs
Common questions and answers about duck eyesight:
What color are ducks’ eyes?
Duck eye coloration varies from species to species. Eye coloration in domesticated ducks can also vary.
Domesticated Mallard-derived ducks (Anas platyrhynchos) have black pupils, black irises, and brown *sclera. However, some Muscovy ducks (Cairina moschata) have blue sclera. (*Sclera in humans is white and the part typically referred to as “the whites of your eyes”.)
If you’ve ever wondered why humans have white sclera (which is very rare in nature, even amongst hominids), “cooperative eye hypothesis” is currently the best explanation. Highly social, cooperative hunters are made more successful at communicating and obtaining food by being able to more easily see each others’ eye movements and gaze direction. Thus wolves and humans have white sclera.
While ducks are social creatures, they are NOT cooperative hunters. The last thing our ducks want to do is share a juicy worm with their friends, and it doesn’t take multiple ducks to stalk, run down, or kill a worm or minnow.
Thus, ducks benefit from having eye colorations that essentially camouflage their gaze direction from each other while also camouflaging them from predators.
Do ducks have good vision and can they see better than humans?
Ducks can see far away objects about 2.5-3x better than humans while still maintaining a clear view of nearby objects.
What type of vision do ducks have?
Ducks have monocular tetrachromatic vision. This means ducks have a 360° field of vision in the horizontal plane and four-dimensional color vision that far exceeds human color perception.
How do ducks see color? What colors can ducks see or not see?
Ducks see every color that humans see, only with more vibrancy and nuance. They also see ultraviolet (UV) light better than humans, so presumably these colors are more purple than purple.
Since humans are essentially blind to these low nanometer light ranges, imagining how a duck sees them is pretty well impossible to imagine, much less put into words.
Do ducks see well at night?
No, ducks don’t see well at night but they do see well at dawn and dusk due to their ability to perceive more of the UV spectrum than humans.
We hope you enjoyed this article and gained a better bird’s-eye or duck’s-eye view of the world!
Flap on over to these other duck articles:
- Do ducks have teeth? How duck lamellae and digestive systems work
- Understanding duck mating and courtship
- What to feed wild ducks (and what not to)
- Is it safe to raise human babies around ducks?
- How to tell boy and girl ducklings and ducks apart