Avian Anatomy for Artists: Eyes

Sep 8, 2020

Once I do my initial sketch of any bird, the first part I bring to completion is the eye. I love seeing the bird come to life as I color in the eye and bring out the highlight.

Bird’s eyes are incredibly complex organs that are highly specialized to allow them to see in all kinds of conditions from night-time to underwater, depending on the species. In this post, you can learn some of the aspects of bird eye anatomy that are important for drawing or painting birds.

Size

The size and shape of bird’s eyes vary dramatically across species. Compare these two duck species, a Wood Duck and a Ferruginous Duck. The Wood Duck, as the name implies, lives in wooded swamps and nests in tree cavities. Ferruginous Ducks are divers and spend most of their time in open water.

Wood Duck: Wikimedia Commons
Ferruginous Duck: Wikimedia Commons

Shape

Bird’s eyes have a typically bulging appearance that is created by its unique anatomy. All bird’s eyes are extremely large, occupying a large portion of the skull. Unlike human eyes, which are spherical, bird’s eyes have an odd shape that is determined by the presence of a ring of bones situated within the eye itself, called a sclerotic ring.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Iris and Pupil

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The color of the bird’s eye, which is usually the color of the iris itself, extends across the entire surface of the visible eye. Iris color varies across species and can range from white to very dark brown (which often reads as black). Eye color can also change during an individual’s lifetime. American Crows, for example, have blue eyes as juveniles that darken too brown in adulthood. Because bird’s irises are often very dark in color, the pupil may not be visible but is always present.

Highlight

In good light, a highlight appears on the surface of the eye which is a reflection of the light source in the bird’s environment. Placement of the highlight varies depending on the position of the head. The size and shape of the highlight will change depending on the intensity of the light source. In diffuse light, you may see the outlined reflections of shapes of the sky through trees, as seen in this photo of a juvenile European Robin.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Orbital Ring and Eye Ring

Surrounding the eye is a ring of skin, referred to as the orbital ring. The color of the orbital ring varies across species and is sometimes very conspicuous as in this Killdeer.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The eye ring is the ring of feathers immediately surrounding the orbital ring. Not present on all species, this ring may blend in with the surrounding plumage but can contrast strongly in color.


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I publish Painterly, a monthly newsletter for bird-loving artists who want to learn more about birds and grow their artistic skills.

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