CLASSIFIED! What I am about to tell you is top secret, and could end my career. I was in the worst position you could ever dream of, there were turkeys all over the field like fireflies…and I got busted!
I got busted just as many others because of the turkeys number one defense. EYESIGHT! I use to take it for granted, but learning the in depth complexity of how a turkey sees has certainly improved my success in the field. This has been one of my favorite topics for seminars, radio shows, and podcasts for years! In this blog we will dive right in to what you need to know about the wild turkeys vision, why its important, and how it effects you as a hunter. Since most of these “secrets” have been declassified, this is good information to share with your friends, and especially with the youth as well as new turkey hunters.
RODS AND CONES = NIGHT AND COLOR VISION
A turkeys retina is super complex! In fact, according to experts, turkeys along with their avian relatives sport the most complex retina of any of the vertebrates! Without getting too complicated, here is what you need to know.
- A turkey has one ROD. The rods are responsible for NIGHT vision. We will break that down shortly.
- A turkey has 6 CONES. Cones are responsible for COLOR vision. 2 of the 6 cones are “double” cones, one of which allows the turkey to see at 400nm… ULTRA VIOLET!
That is a big deal! Consider all those times you got busted and never moved or even blinked. Could your camo have UV brighteners? Are you a “glowing” visual target for a turkey to focus on? Certainly something to think about. You could easily spend a days pay on custom turkey loads or a couple packs of broadheads so why not check your camo with a black light and go buy a UV neutralizer spray or clothes wash if necessary. This is a simple fix to an issue most hunters don’t even realize exists.
CHOOSE THE RIGHT CAMO
With the turkeys extraordinary color vision always comes the question of the necessity of wearing camo that matches from head to toe and to your hunting environment. While there is some truth to that, I personally feel that breaking up your human form should be considered first. I am a big fan of leafy style outfits for that reason. I also feel that camo pattern choice does play a role depending on how you are hunting. If you are out in the open, maybe running and gunning so to speak. It is always a good idea to wear a pattern that best matches your terrain. If you are going to get stuck sitting highlighted by the sun sitting in front of a big oak and you are wearing a pattern with a lot of white in it because you started in the birch woods, you could find yourself getting picked out. Direct sunlight always presents challenges as it is, so be careful with light patterns if you are planning a day of being on the move. In most situations where I hunt, I like to wear leafy pants, or a leaf style pattern pant, and a tree bark shirt or jacket. That combination has worked very well for me over the years. As I mentioned sunlight, be aware that the brighter it is outside the better the turkeys color vision is. Much like ours, color fades as light fades. No matter what you pick for camo, keep in mind you are dealing with a bird that sees better than 3 times 20/20 vision!
As I mentioned above, turkeys have 1 Rod and 6 Cones. In comparison, humans have 1 Rod and 3 Cones. With 1 Rod It is safe to say that turkeys have “similar” light gathering capabilities as you do. This is important to understand, especially when walking into your spot in the morning and roosting birds in the evening. Think of the turkeys night vision like this. Imagine yourself in a tree stand at sunset. As the light fades the deer under you go from being completely visible to shapes you can hardly see, and then finally just sounds you can hear as they move about. This is very similar for a turkey. If you can put yourself in the turkeys place in the roost and then imagine yourself in a tree stand in the same lighting it will help you be aware of what they are seeing. Some hunters like to compare the night vision of turkeys to that of owls, but there is no comparison here. Turkeys lack the reflective tapetum lucidum that owls have as well as the number of rods. In nocturnal owl species, rods outnumber cones 30 to 1! In fact owls can have almost a million rods per square millimeter in their retina! So while the owl can clearly see you sneaking around the woods at 3:00am, the turkey can only hear you.
With the turkeys eyes positioned on the sides of their head, they have monocular, periscopic vision. This allows them to see great distances as well as providing excellent peripheral vision. Without turning their heads, turkeys can see 270 degrees! Don’t miss the importance of that. Draw a circle and then divide it into equal 4ths with an X. Now shade out the triangle at the bottom. A turkey can see all the rest! So literally behind their head to some degree! Then, with a small turn of their head they have instant 360 degree vision! I don’t want you to miss the importance of this because it is the reason most hunters get busted. If you can see a turkeys head, he can see you no matter what position it is in! THE ONLY safe bet you have to move is when they head moves behind a tree, or is behind their tail fan. That is it! This is compounded when there are other birds around and especially when a well educated boss hen is on alert. Granted there are times when a gobbler is so focused on your decoy or another bird that he is not paying attention, but for the most part you would be well advised to be up and ready in shooting position before a gobbler comes into view. This is one of the reason I love bi-pods and tri-Pod rests. There is nothing more frustrating then when your arms give out before the bird clears your desired distance for a shot and you have to lower your weapon. Compound bow hunters know this situation very well as you can only hold full draw so long. To add one more turkey advantage to this mix of perfect vision is the fact that turkeys don’t need to blink. You read that correctly, the king of spring also has a second eyelid or what is called a nictitating membrane. This is a clear eyelid that serves to keep our feathered friends number one defense moist, free from debris, and ready to pick us out because they don’t ever loose sight! To get a good picture of this in your mind, imagine Shark Week on TV and picture a great white along side of the boat taking a big chunk out of a dead fish on a rope. You can clearly see their nictitating membrane as it closes to help protect their eye. Same concept, little bit different purpose but you get the idea.
It is clear to see (pun intended) that when it comes to the wild turkeys eyesight we are clearly at a disadvantage. I always say in my seminars that it is a good thing they don’t use smell as a defense or we would be in trouble! Even with a brain roughly the size of the end of your thumb, they are excellent at processing the information from their eyes to use as defense mechanism. However, with a little in depth knowledge and some preparation on our part we can become a more formidable predator in the turkey woods.
Good luck to you all this season! Thanks for reading and be sure to check out our YouTube channel for more great turkey facts and even a video directly on the subject of their vision.