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Waterfowl Vision: Beating the Odds

When it comes to decoys, carving detail and realistic paint schemes are critical in putting incoming ducks and geese at ease, but incorporating a variety of natural and welcoming poses like feederssleepers and preeners will also help your decoy spread pass the eye test.


Whether one pursues whitetails or waterfowl, rabbits or reindeer, understanding your quarry is one of the keys to successful hunting.

Certain species exhibit incredibly advanced natural traits that demand full considered and preparation. Whitetails, for example, have about 60 times as many scent receptors as humans. Their noses simply cannot be ignored. And when it comes to hunting waterfowl, it’s all about the eyes.

Birds, as a whole, posses some of the most advanced vision in the animal kingdom, and waterfowl are no exception. Research of avian eyesight reveals characteristics hard to comprehend by human standards. In fact, once we consider the effectiveness of their eyes, it’s hard to believe hunters kill any ducks or geese at all.

In order to begin to understand how waterfowl see, it is helpful to recognize the fundamental differences between their eyes and our own. Most game birds possess monocular vision, rather than the binocular vision that we have. Because a bird’s eyes are located on the sides of its head, in most cases it is physically impossible for both eyes to focus on the same object at the same time. Waterfowl are an exception. Most waterfowl species do enjoy a very narrow field of binocular vision, right in front of their bills.

waterfowl vision

Goose hunters finish Canada geese from a well-concealed Avian-X A-Frame Blind. Geese have incredible vision and can easily spot glare and frost on painted decoys. Fully-flocked decoys like Avian-X’s AXF Series help eliminate this problem, giving hunters an advantage over wise, late-season birds.


Monocular vision eliminates the intricate 3-D views that we see as humans. Overall depth perception is dramatically compromised. Ducks and geese compensate for this, however, by turning their heads back and forth, occasionally viewing the same object with each eye at different times. Hunters can observe this behavior when landing Canada geese attempt to gain perspective on the distance to the ground. Ducks can also often be seen bobbing their heads in flight while looking at decoys or other birds on the water.

While monocular vision limits a bird’s 3-D viewing ability, it greatly expands their overall field of view. A mallard duck can see 360 degrees around its head, as compared to a human’s 260-degree range. This is an adaptation for predator detection. Waterfowl have evolved to survive, in part, by being able to view their entire surroundings.

Monocular vision makes waterfowl hunting extremely challenging. Just hiding from the birds seems impossible. But their optical advantages don’t end there.

The advanced eye structures of ducks and geese further increase their ability to pick out potential danger, including hunters on the ground. Our eye structures have built-in obstructions, which ducks and geese lack. Whereas human eyes contain blood vessels throughout the retina, these vessels are contained in a single, small organ known as a pecten within the eyes of ducks and geese. This feature gives them unimpeded vision far surpassing that of human beings.

The eyes of many birds, including ducks and geese, also contain cone cells that are sensitive to ultraviolet light, which is invisible to the human eye. The reasons for this are debatable, as are the practical implications to hunting.

Waterfowl Vision2Ducks and geese can discern between two similar colors from great distances. To them, your exposed skin looks like a neon sign. Avoid flaring birds by covering or painting your face and hands.


Most scientific sources agree that much of this UV-sensitivity is present to assist birds in discerning between the varying plumage colors of their peers, and may be important in choosing mates. In addition, it’s been found that some food sources, including select berries and seeds, emit ultraviolet light, which may help some birds locate key food sources. Whether or not ducks and geese use this ability to find certain grains or wetland seeds is unknown.

What is known, however, is that most ducks and geese see much better, both in colors and in terms of focus, than humans. In addition, it is believed that many birds see both slow and fast moving objects much better than we do – an ability waterfowl may use to guide their migrations by following the subtle flickering of far-off stars.

While all this biology is fascinating, it supports what most waterfowl hunters already know: Hunters must stay fully concealed if they expect to have a chance at fooling waterfowl into coming their way.

Because ducks and geese can distinguish between colors incredibly well, hunters must not only consider how good their camouflage looks, but how well it blends with the surrounding terrain. When viewed by a duck or goose, the darker camo typically used for timber hunts, for example, stands out like a sore thumb in light cornstalks or a dried out cattail marsh.

Also consider the contrast presented by a lack of concealment. After a generous review of scientific literature, a once-debated factor is now clear: Ducks and geese can easily pick out the human face, so always cover it with a facemask or paint.

The importance of blind concealment can’t be understated. For years, I’ve watched as unsuccessful hunters fail to consider what their hiding spot looked like from above, rather than simply at ground level. While it can be difficult to get effective overhead concealment, hunters should take every opportunity to ensure they do so. An easy method is to secure area foliage – like dead reeds or flooded corn stalks – onto stout dowel rods with zip-ties. Place a couple of these stakes around each hunter and the dog stand to provide tufts of overhead cover.

Waterfowl Vision4

Mallards and other duck species often wear eclipse plumage and look decidedly different during the early season. Avian-X makes a variety of Early Season Packs, like these mallards, that lend maximum realism to an early-season decoy spread.


When choosing a manufactured blind, consider the look from above as much as anything. For example, Ameristep’s Duck Commander Landing Strip Blind incorporate total concealment via Realtree camouflage with built-in grass straps for attaching supplemental vegetation. They also include fold-open doors or a flip-up lid for hiding the hunter’s face. The slanted design of Avian-X’s popular A-Frame Blind effectively hides most of the blind’s interior from above, and the narrow opening at the top can easily be concealed with natural materials. Like the Ameristep layout models, the large and portable Avian-X A-Frame includes built-in grass straps and pockets for easy and complete concealment using natural vegetation.

suck commander landing strip blindAmeristep Duck Commander Landing Strip Blind


Once hunters are well hidden, the next duck-defying visual consideration is the look of our decoys. When hunters set out a decoy spread, they are inviting extreme scrutiny by some of the sharpest eyes in the animal kingdom – eyes that are on high alert for the slightest imperfection. Extreme realism is a must.

Avian-X decoys are regarded by many as the most realistic available. The company’s Topflight Duck Decoys have fooled ducks for years, thanks to the intricate relief of their carving and their highly-detailed paint schemes. In addition to their standard Topflight Mallards, Avian-X offersBackwater and Sleeper/Preener Mallard Packs that take mallard decoy spreads to the next level by adding the natural and relaxed feeding, sleeping and preening poses that put incoming ducks at ease. They even offer an Early-Season Mallard Pack that effectively duplicates the look of mallard drakes in the eclipse plumage that’s so commonly seen throughout much of the early hunting season.

Unique weather situations also affect decoy appearance and, therefore, must be considered. Decoys featuring traditional paint and hard plastic bodies often produce unnatural glare under many conditions – particularly on frosty mornings and sunny afternoons. Softer molding compounds will help, but fully-flocked blocks, like the entire Avian-X AXF Canada goose line, will immediately eliminate this problem.

Under rare occasions, ducks and geese seem to ignore what their eyes are telling them, and bomb into the spread without concern. Those days, however, are few and far between. More often, those beady little eyes do us in. These advanced organs function well beyond the scope of most hunters’ knowledge.

So if you’d like to finish more ducks and geese, start paying those eyes the respect they deserve. Cover up completely, and utilize the most realistic decoys you can find. All eyes are upon you.

Waterfowl Vision3Whether hunting fields or open water, total concealment and realistic, high-quality decoys provide the advantages necessary to beat the exceptional vision of ducks and geese.


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