Eyes of the Forest: What Colors Can Deer See and How Is Their Vision?

Brown colored white tailed deer with fawn on natural trail in north Wisconsin

What does the world look like to deer as they prance through thickets in search of hickory nuts and wild blackberries? The world is quite a different place through the eyes of a doe or buck. In fact, the green fronds of the forest, blue trickles of streams and fleshy hues of fruit appear very different in the eyes of a deer compared to what humans see.

Let’s break down the secrets behind deer vision and what colors they see.

An Overview of Deer Vision

Do deer have good eyesight? The way to describe deer vision in a nutshell is to say that these animals have poor vision for detail that is bolstered by an incredible ability to detect movement using a 300-degree advantage. A good place to start with understanding what deer see is to compare deer vision to human vision.

Illustration of color vision in humans and deer

Deer have more rods in their eyes than humans. That works out to create a much stronger ability for seeing in the darkness than humans. In fact, anyone who has ever watched a deer gallop in front of their headlights has actually seen this in action. Deer have a reflective layer within their eyes called a tapetum lucidum that is responsible for this shimmering appearance of their eyes at night. This shiny, reflective feature is what helps deer to see so acutely in the darkness.

We can also look at cone placement to get an idea of how well deer can see. First, a deer’s cones are actually spread along the back of the eye horizontally. This configuration means that a deer’s eye is unable to adjust to “fix” on objects that are dispersed at varying distances. As a result, straight-on focus is difficult for a deer.

However, this configuration does allow deer to have better peripheral focus than humans. In fact, a deer that appears to be looking “away” from you may actually have you in a perfect line of sight. Nature gave deer the “prey” advantage when it comes to eyesight. This means that having eyes located at the sides of their heads allows them to have a 300-degree view. A deer’s only blind spot is what’s directly behind them. As predators, humans have an advantage for forward-facing vision.

What Colors Can Deer See?

Two deer crossing a narrow pathway surrounded by bushes in the forest

The common misconception is that deer are color blind. To debunk this, it’s important to cover the definition of color blindness. Color blindness generally means being unable to distinguish between colors. While deer have trouble seeing some colors brilliantly, they have too wide a range of color vision to be considered color blind.

Deer fall very short in color vision when it comes to distinguishing between certain colors. The two deer cones are capable of seeing blue and red. However, they lack the ability to distinguish orange and green from red. This should make some bells go off if you’re picturing what deer spotters wear when drifting into the woods to stalk deer.

Deer have trouble spotting orange. This means that a hunter in orange gear may blend into a wooded, boggy area just fine. Camouflage is also a good concealment option when spotting deer. However, good camouflage will contain light shades of green and brown to obscure your figure for a deer. Wearing camouflage with multiple patterns instead of just green actually helps to obscure your outline to cause a deer to simply see you as a “blob” in the woods.

Military camouflage fabric textured background

Many deer spotters make the mistake of wearing camouflage that contains lots of white. This is actually a mistake because those blots of white reflect all colors. That means that the colors that deer see quite easily will be on full display even if you’re technically wearing deer-friendly colors.

All of this brings us to the task of finding which color is the worst color to wear when spotting deer. Blue is actually the worst color for deer spotters to wear because deer perceive blue quite easily. That means blue jeans too.

According to Bradley Cohen at the University of Georgia, deer probably see shades of blue up to 20 times better than humans do. In fact, a deer sees blue much more vividly than a human sees red.

Two middle school students taking a picture of a deer in the forest

The big takeaway as far as color vision for deer is that blue and red are the two “polarizing” colors for deer. While deer have a hard time spotting red hues, blue hues appears as clear as day for deer. However, color isn’t where it ends when it comes to just how richly deer see certain colors.

It turns out that fibers and fabrics used in apparel can actually tilt vision in one direction or the other. That’s because soft, natural fibers reflect less light than some cheaper materials. Anything that reflects more light means that deer will be able to perceive more colors within the blue spectrum. That means that cheaper materials like vinyl and plastic can make a person more visible to deer.

Do Deer See Differently at Different Times of the Day?

Light conditions greatly impact a deer’s vision. A deer has unusually pristine vision in low-light conditions due to being able to widen their pupils three times more than humans can. This means they have impeccable vision at dusk and dawn. As a result, you’re more likely to spot deer out at dusk and dawn because they use this time to travel safely with high vigilance. That also means that deer are more likely to see you at these times of day because their vision is at its peak.

White-tailed deer standing in the middle of a green field looking in different directions at dusk

Final Thoughts on Deer Vision

Deer have a number of vision advantages and disadvantages when compared to humans. Overall, deer can see more than humans in terms of peripheral views and nighttime vision. However, they aren’t as good at spotting details as humans. Deer are masters at detecting movement. The bottom line is that being still in the presence of deer is more meaningful than wearing the “perfect color” if you want to be able to observe deer.

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