Human colour vision under normal lighting levels is mediated by three cones (light-sensitive cells) in the retina. Each class of cone has peak sensitivity at a different wavelength and thus the cones are known as L (long-wavelength sensitive), M (medium-wavelength sensitive) and S (short-wavelength sensitive) cones or (sometimes) as red, green and blue cones. Both colour and luminance are captured by the same cone mechanism. The L and M cone responses are combined to give luminance and various cone responses are compared to give rise to hue and chroma. Interestingly, the distribution of L, M and S cones in the retina is not uniform but is random.
A recent paper – http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0008992 – by scientists at Washington University School of Medicine (St Louis, USA) reveals that chickens have five types of cone. Interestingly, one of these types of cones (so-called double cones) seems to encode luminance, whereas the other four cones (red, green, blue and violet) give rise to tetrachromatic vision. The cones are very regulary spaced in the retina.
The spacing of cones in the human retina may result from a compromise – the same cones need to encode colour and luminance. The avian colour vision system seems to be more sophisticated. One can only wonder at what benefit was bestowed in avians by separating the processing of colour and luminance information.