turkey vision

What a Turkey Actually Sees When It's Looking At You

My first time turkey hunting I was sitting in a blind in the middle of a field between my dad and my uncle. Peering out from the little fabric hut, I was easing the barrel of the shotgun out through the small opening.

"Don't move, he's looking," my dad whispered.

All I knew then was that wild turkeys have really good eyesight. So I held my breath and didn't even move my eyes for fear the gobbler would see me. Later, I would wonder how he could see the tiniest movement from across a field, but didn't seem to notice the blind or the pipe smoke seeping out of the top of it.

Birds, in general, have a strong reputation in regards to their vision. You've surely heard the phrase "eyes like a hawk" used to describe someone with keen eyesight at some point or another. Owls, on the other hand, are known for their night vision that is effective enough to detect a mouse in pitch-black conditions. But how much do we know about turkey vision? What does that gobbler actually see when he looks in our direction?

The first thing you notice when you look at a turkey's eyes is that they are located on either side of its head. Like most prey animals, being able to keep a lookout is more important than depth perception. The placement of their eyes offers them roughly 270 degrees, as opposed to our 180-degree field of view.

Although, the lack of depth perception that inevitably comes with their monocular vision is undoubtedly a drawback. When a turkey is bobbing his head around, it's because it's trying to get a better feel for how close something is. However, unlike some other prey animals, turkeys do have some extra advantages, as other prey animals, like deer specifically, have limited color vision, whereas turkeys can see colors quite well. Technically speaking, color is perceived through the use of structures in the eye called rods and cones. Humans have one rod and three single cones, giving us a total of four different kinds of photoreceptors. As a result, we see color pretty well.

Turkeys, however, have seven different kinds of photoreceptors—one rod, four single cones, and two double cones—allhowing them to see a broader spectrum of colors, as well as UVA light.

What this means is that in addition to being able to see color better than us, they can also see in the ultraviolet spectrum.

This begs the question: If I want to see how a turkey sees, should I just shine a blacklight over my clothes to see if they glow? The answer to that is a little complicated. You see, certain substances contain phosphors. Phosphors glow in the presence of UVA light, such as that emitted by a blacklight. So when you look at an object under a blacklight and it seems to glow, the phosphors are glowing because you are giving them a high dose of UVA radiation (not to be confused with harmful UVB radiation, so don't panic).

So if there is enough naturally occurring UVA light, then yes, the turkeys probably see a bit of a glow. In fact, certain detergents contain phosphors, so there is a chance of running your favorite turkey camouflage through the washer and contradicting your entire objective. But if you really want to see something light up, throw a light on some tonic water. It really shines! Yet another reason to not have cocktail hour in the woods.

Turkeys seeing in color also creates another problem. Won't my blaze orange stick out like a sore thumb?

It's possible, but many prey animals focus more on patterns than color. Vision is a complex system, and eye structure only makes up half of it. The way the brain translates those signals is what ultimately makes or breaks your ability to conceal yourself.

A turkey doesn't necessarily see a spot of orange and think, "Aha! There's a bunch of turkey hunters!" especially if there are other natural orange objects in its respective environment.

Differences in pattern and movement are usually what signal to a turkey that there is a natural predator nearby, so that's what their brains are geared toward detecting.

Supposedly they can see about three times sharper than a person with 20/20 vision and about eight times further away. So investing in a good pattern that isn't fuzzy may make a real difference.

As for movement, you'll just have to hold really still!