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Hunter's eyes

Do you see anything special? The anomaly is the deer laying down beside the target. 

The eyes, some say, are the window to the soul. Looking into a pair of human eyes, what do you see?

If you look deeply, you'll see that there lurks a hunter in every one of us, like it or not. I can find no well-known psychologists of the 20th century who concluded that hunting is not instinctual in man -- carried in our very genes from millions of years of evolution. And that is a problem for some folks who don't like hunting.

Actually, we can learn a lot about the hunting instinct, not by looking into someone's eyes, but by looking at our physical form. Like all other animals who eat meat, we have eyes that are on the front of the face. The frontal positioning of the eyes helps predators use binocular vision to judge the distance to the prey.

Having eyes on the sides of head is advantageous for animals that are constantly on alert for other animals that may prey on them, like deer, moose, antelope, pheasants, grouse, geese, etc. Woodcock, for example, have eyes on the sides of their heads. Timberdoodles can see 360 degrees around them, but only have a range of 10 percent of their field of vision that is binocular.

One wonders if in time humans who are vegetarians will evolve to have eyes on the sides of their heads.

My point is that if you look into an ethical hunter's eyes, what you will see is pride and self-acceptance. That is one reason why a number of research studies find that nationwide, crime rates decline as hunting license sales go up and kids who learn how to hunt ethically are less prone to get in trouble.

Predators also almost all have keen eyes. Soaring hawks like the redtail have the keenest eyesight of any predator bird. Their eyes are large, frontal and flattened, giving them an enormous field of peripheral vision, nearly twice that of our own.

Even more impressive is the hawk's ability to hone in and see detail, which is eight times as accurate as our own. Thanks to an unusual set of tiny muscles around the eye, the soaring hawks can adjust their retina so as to become a telephoto lens, enabling them to spot a mouse from half a mile away. Visual acuity of the soaring hawks is even further advanced by the extraordinary number of photoreceptor cells in their retina -- approximately 1,000,000 per square millimeter.

Another predator bird, the owl, has huge eyes -- 1 to 5 percent of their body weight depending on the species -- which enables them to scan a large field and hunt in dim light.

As a human hunter, you may not have a hawk or owl's eyes, but developing your ability to see is an essential tool in becoming a better hunter. For seeing detail at a distance, we go technological and use binoculars, a spotting scope or a telescopic sight on a rifle or pistol.

Before you use a magnification device, though, you have to know where to point it. And that requires a different kind of eyesight, peripheral vision, which is not something they teach in school, unless, possibly, if you play sports.

In modern society, it's all too easy to develop "tunnel vision" -- looking directly ahead at details, like reading a book or a computer screen, and blotting out the rest of your field of vision. Athletes (and hunters) need to also develop "peripheral vision," which is the ability to be aware of your entire field of vision, which is 180 degrees for humans. This is done by a different kind of cell in the eye, the rods, instead of cone cells in the retina that are used for seeing detail.

Rods are used for low light vision, as well as scanning beyond the immediate focus of attention. They are not as good at color vision but are able to function in low light and discern patterns. Pattern-seeing, as opposed to detail-seeing, is essential to becoming a good hunter.

If you try to see from one side to another by moving your eyes from side to side constantly, it becomes tiring, and you may miss what you are seeking, because you are using tunnel vision. You need to break this pattern.

The key to developing wide-range peripheral visual awareness is cultivating what in the martial arts is called "soft eyes," which is the ability to relax your need to see anything in detail and simply be aware of your entire field of vision. This is rod-seeing.

You shift from looking for details to looking for patterns. As you consider vast expanses like blue sky, trees in a forest, blades of grass or a cattail marsh, you look for anomalies in the patterns -- things that jump out as being different, like the head or a deer, or movement of a wild boar, or a rabbit's ears poking up out of the grass. When you see an anomaly, then you switch over to the cones for detail vision, or pick up your binoculars.

An example: in waterfowl hunting, there are two levels of pattern perception. The first is to scan the skies looking for anything that is flying. Soft eyes all the way. You spot a moving dark shape in the sky. That's an anomaly. Time to focus.

Now you focus on that approaching dark shape, and go through a checklist to ID it. How big is it? As big or smaller than a duck? How fast are the wings beating? Ducks and geese have fast, steady wingbeats. Most other birds have irregular wingbeats, but then there are ibises, cormorants, curlews, all about the right size as a duck and with somewhat duck-like wingbeats to keep you on your toes.

As the bird approaches you, your eyes focus to look for more details -- color, body shape, beak, and whether the legs are trailing behind the bird, or tucked up against the body. Finally, you seek to ID the species, and sex. Now if it all checks out, comes the time to decide when and where to shoot.

We normally don't teach people how to develop peripheral vision, but that does not mean you can't learn it. Developing "soft eyes" begins with learning to relax your eyes. Because there is so much stress on detail in our lives, this requires a fair amount of concentration.

Too much tunnel vision causes eye strain, even headaches. That's why it's good every 20-30 minutes that you spend watching a computer screen or reading a book to look up and out the window, let go of your focus and relax your eyes.

You also begin to develop soft eyes by simply letting go and gazing at a scene 180 degrees. Do not pay attention to details. The easiest scene is a body of water, the sky, maybe a field of all the same species of plants or a forest. Do not try to look at any one thing. Just be aware of the whole field, as if it's a woven rug or a quilt.

Here's a sequence of simple exercises to develop visual relaxation. Slowly move your head from side to side, scanning the whole field, and not trying to focus on any one thing. Do this a couple times. Note how far to the side in each direction you can see as you move your head from side to side comfortably.

Repeat moving your head from side to side, but this time become aware of what lies on the farthest peripheral areas of your vision. Do not strain. Look at what is on your right side and turn your head to focus your eyes on the right side. Now come back to center.

Normally your eyes and head move together, but you can break that pattern, and this will help you relax your eyes. This time turn your head to the right, but keep the focus of your eyes on the left. This will feel a little weird because we are used to moving our heads with our eyes leading.

Now, do the same for the left side. Turn your head and eyes to the left as far as you can comfortably. Mark the place where your eyes see at the end of the turn. Now turn your head to the left, but look right as far as you can comfortably. Do this several times.

Now turn your head to left with your eyes to left. You will find that you will be able to rotate your head farther, because you have broken a fixed pattern. And, you will find that you are more aware of the periphery. Such an exercise makes you consciously aware of what previously had been a routine, unconscious behavior.

Shifting into soft eyes in the field will be easier now. Go outside and give it a try.

Developing "soft eyes" helps you pick out patterns and movements that signal something unusual is there -- hopefully a critter that you want to bag. Work on it, and you will develop eyes like a hawk, and become a more successful hunter.

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.