Staring contests


A staring contest is a game in which an individual stares into another’s eyes and attempts to maintain unblinking eye contact for longer than the opponent.

It is the rare human who can win a staring contest with a White-tailed Deer. 

Yet, it is trivial matter to win a staring contest with a Bald Eagle.

I was reminded of this curiosity in the last few days when I had two really close encounters with deer. The result of the contests was: deer 2, human 0. Why is there such a difference between deer, humans, and eagles? It probably comes down to the differences in their eyes.

The greatest spacial and colour resolution takes place in the eye’s fovea. The numbers are:
Eagle: 1,000,000 retinal cells per mm2 , 4-colour vision;
• Humans: 200,000 retinal cells per mm2, 3-colour vision;
Deer: 40,000 retinal cells per mm2, 2-colour vision.

Consider the eagle: its vision is much better than that of a human. It easily assesses a human as neither predator nor prey. Consequently, it quickly shifts its gaze elsewhere. 

Consider the deer: it isn’t trying to outstare you; indeed, it isn’t really sure you are there. The deer’s (daytime) vision is sufficiently poor that it freezes as it tries to decide if there is a threat. If it cannot smell you (the wind is in the wrong direction), it takes its time assessing this possibly new feature in its environment. If the human does not move, and its colours blend well with the surroundings, the deer might as well not waste energy by bolting, but rather return to browsing.

This White-tailed Deer was seen in the same area as the doe, above, but a day earlier. We stared at each other as my camera clicked away. Apparently, deer have yet to evolve an understanding of digital photography.

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4 Responses to Staring contests

  1. the other Derek says:


    This is especially good.

  2. Marie says:

    Interesting… one is predator, the other prey. Both perfectly evolved for their place in nature’s grand design. I shall always wonder though, where do humans fit in?

    • Alistair says:

      Marie, that is easy: humans are predators. The eyes of prey are on the sides of the head for the best wide-angle view to spot predators. The eyes of predators are on the front of the head allowing the stereo image that enables precise location of prey.

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