Many animals are a study in contrasts. For every incredible ability that an animal has, it usually has one or more weaknesses to offset it.
Looking at animals that are predator, prey or sometimes both the determining factor for where it falls into the food chain might be whether or not it is simply in its element.
Despite being common livestock, chickens are no different and are renowned for their incredible eyesight which they share with many birds.
I’ll never understand how chickens are able to see a tiny bug moving through the grass and then pounce on it. But this brings up a good question about chickens’ eyesight: do chickens see well at night?
No, chickens actually see very poorly at night. A chicken that is in hours of greatly reduced light or total darkness will be extremely vulnerable, as many of its instinctive behaviors revolve around getting safe prior to nightfall and not staying safe until sunrise.
As good as a chicken’s eyesight is during the day, it’s proportionally terrible at night. Many chickens will just bed down and wait for sunrise if they get caught outside in the dark.
And since your chickens are highly vulnerable after darkness falls, you should always make sure they make it home safe and sound to the coop before that time.
I’ll tell you more about chickens and their awful night vision below…
Chickens See Great in the Daytime
As I mentioned above, chickens really do have great daytime vision. They have an extremely wide “cone” of vision, though it’s not really a cone at all since they see on both sides, directly in front and almost totally behind them without turning their head.
They also see wavelengths of light and color that people and other mammals can’t, and it is thought that chickens have remarkably acute eyesight when it comes to perceiving details.
There are physiologically also highly adapted to noticing the smallest and most furtive movement in the environment, something that will help them get the drop on their own prey in the form of bugs, worms and other crawling things, and also spot predators before they get close enough to strike.
So in a lot of ways, a chicken’s daytime eyesight is a whole lot better than yours and mine!
But Chickens See Poorly in the Dark
But the flip side is that chickens have truly awful night vision. How is this possible?
Simple: chickens lack a structure in the eye called the tapetum lucidum, a sort of a mirror that reflects light across the retina that improves the visual pickup of light at night, thereby directly improving night vision.
So that’s a disadvantage, but even worse is that chickens simply lack many of the specialized cells in their eyes needed for even halfway decent night vision.
I’ll put it to you this way: human beings have pretty poor night vision compared to the rest of the animal kingdom, but even our terrible night vision is way, way better than a chicken’s! It really is that bad…
So for all of their other advantages, chickens have definitely drawn the short straw when it comes to nighttime visual perception.
Chickens Always Want to Be Settled Before Sundown
This terrible night vision is more than just a drawback chickens have learned to deal with.
Wild jungle fowl, the chicken’s ancestors, also lack good night vision, and centuries of selective breeding practices have done nothing to really improve the night vision of domestic chickens.
Accordingly, every single facet of a chicken’s life has forever revolved around avoiding this one fatal flaw.
If you ever noticed all of your chickens heading for home at about the same time prior to nightfall when the sun starts getting low in the sky, there is a reason for that: they instinctively know that to be caught out in the darkness is death.
Chickens are Easy Prey in Darkness
There is a reason why chickens are so instinctively motivated to seek shelter, be it inside the coop or just up in a tree off the ground, before darkness falls.
That’s because they are so vulnerable to predators during hours of low light, and even worse for the chickens, many of their predators see much better than they do at night, giving them a total advantage.
Think about it: if you were stumbling around basically totally blind in the dark, and something that was after you that could see almost as well in the dark as it could during the day, it’s a foregone conclusion what would happen.
You wouldn’t be able to defend yourself in any meaningful way- the same goes for chickens!
Chickens might have great eyesight to detect approaching predators in the daytime, and they might be quick enough or agile enough to get out of trouble when they can see during high noon, but that isn’t going to be the case at night.
Predators like raccoons, possums, foxes, coyotes and especially owls all see much better than chickens do at night.
In the case of owls there are most active, and do most of their hunting during the night where they completely rule over all other birds and smaller creatures.
Your poor chickens won’t stand a chance…
Is it a Good Idea to Give Chickens a Light at Night?
After reading all this, it is only natural that some chicken keepers would seek to eliminate this vulnerability for their chickens.
If there are helpless in the dark, maybe they would appreciate a night light so they could see and feel safe.
Maybe some area lighting around the coop or run would let them stay active and safe during hours of darkness. Would that make a positive difference for your flock?
No, it won’t, and in fact the opposite will be true. Chickens are so adapted to settling down and resting at night that artificial light sources can disrupt their sleep cycles, hurting their health overall and definitely giving rise to short tempers the following day.
A little bit of dim light filtering in generally won’t disturb them, but bright lights will wake them up.
Be Wary of Light Pollution Around Your Chickens
Something else to keep in mind is that light pollution around the coop at night is generally to be avoided for the reasons mentioned above, and also because chickens that don’t get enough continuous sleep are far more prone to injury and illness.
Chickens probably aren’t like most people: most of us get up at least once during the night to use the bathroom, get a drink of water or whatever.
Most chickens don’t unless they really have to. Once your chickens get in the coop, get to their spot, and then settle down, they’ll typically stay there all through the night, and they’ll be asleep if they can.
Disrupting this much-needed, natural sleep cycle is only going to harm your birds, and even if you have something to check on or do during hours of darkness, take pains to prevent light pollution from disturbing your chickens once they are shut up in the coop.
Tom has lived and worked on farms and homesteads from the Carolinas to Kentucky and beyond. He is passionate about helping people prepare for tough times by embracing lifestyles of self-sufficiency.