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Can Birds Smell?

can birds smell
While it may be true that owls’ sense of smell isn’t the greatest, the supposition that they don’t have a sense of smell at all is incorrect! Barn Owl: Photo by Sharif Uddin

Introduction

Birds are most admired for beautiful plumage and majestic flight. Yet lurking within those bright beaks lies an overlooked sense which begs the question, can birds smell? While less celebrated than vision or hearing, avian olfaction plays pivotal roles for many species. In fact, around 20 percent of birds rely on scent-based foraging according to biologist Nevitt. From homing pigeons navigating by odor maps to albatrosses sniffing out fishy feeding grounds and turkey vultures catching faintest whiffs of decay, smell helps our feathered friends solve key survival challenges. 

Contrary to outdated notions, experiments prove diverse bird groups leverage smell to locate nest sites, food sources, and even choose genetically compatible mates. Still, sizable gaps remain regarding how extensively different avian species employ olfaction compared to other senses. Unraveling the mysteries of bird brains provides insights into the evolutionary importance of smell for certain ecologies and niches. As we reevaluate long-held assumptions that birds can’t smell, one thing is clear – there’s far more evidence this primal sense serves them well than the notion they’re all scentless.

Can Birds Smell?

Contrary to popular belief, birds do have a sense of smell, even though they may not rely on it as much as sight or sound. Let’s look at some of the evidence that various bird species can and do use their sniffers.

Scent Receptors and Brain Structures

All birds possess nasal passages and olfactory nerves that allow them to detect odors to some degree. Certain groups, like cranes, rails, and nightjars, seem to have more developed scent-related brain areas, suggesting smell plays a bigger role for them.  

Species Differences

When it comes to using their schnozzes, some birds stand out from the flock.

Seabirds 

For seabirds like albatrosses and shearwaters that forage over large areas, smell helps pinpoint good spots to fish. Many respond to smelly bait like krill and fish oils even when the food is hidden. Following their beaks leads them right to the grub!

Vultures

Turkey vultures get credit for having the best avian sniffers. They can catch whiffs of decaying meat from impressive distances away to find tasty carrion snacks. 

Other Groups  

Kiwis use smell to root around the forest floor for earthworms. And honeyguides can track down hidden beeswax to lead other animals to hives. These birds are like feathered bloodhounds!

Proven Functions

Experiments on species with a strong sense of smell reveal they use it for:

Navigation

Scent plumes act as “smell maps” for birds traversing oceans or forests.

Foraging 

Detecting food odors helps birds locate and identify meals.

Selection of Mates

Smell may help some birds, like petrels and shearwaters, choose a genetically compatible mate.

Locating Nests 

Nocturnal burrow-nesting seabirds often rely on scent to orient to their nests after a night of feeding out at sea.

Limitations and Unknowns  

There’s still a lot to uncover in birds’ sensory world.

Quantifying Abilities

It’s tricky measuring odor detection thresholds in animals that can’t tell us what they smell! More behavioral experiments are needed.

Smell vs Other Senses  

Is avian smell stronger or weaker than eyesight or hearing? We lack comparative data, but smell likely plays a supporting role.

Significance of Smell for Birds

So while many birds aren’t scent superstars like bloodhounds, smell still serves key survival functions for certain species.

Role In Evolution and Adaptation

Olfaction has enabled unique adaptations in birds occupying ecological niches where smell provides an advantage.

Reevaluating Old Assumptions  

The outdated notion that birds can’t smell at all clearly warrants reevaluation in light of evidence to the contrary.

Future Research Directions

More investigation into how different bird groups use scent will reveal the true breadth and depth of avian smelly talents!

There’s still much to learn about our fine feathered friends’ sense of smell and how they take cues from their schnozzes to find food, navigate treacherous terrain, and even pick the perfect mate. One thing is certain – assumptions that birds can’t smell don’t pass the sniff test!

Conclusion

While many people don’t associate birds with having a strong sense of smell, the evidence suggests we need to rethink old assumptions. As we’ve explored here, numerous studies demonstrate various avian species leverage scent to locate prey, navigate tricky terrain, identify nest sites, and select optimal mates. Smell even enables unique evolutionary adaptations that allow birds as diverse as tubenoses, vultures, honeyguides, and kiwis to thrive by making use of chemical cues.

However, there are still open questions around quantifying smell abilities and how extensively different groups employ olfaction relative to vision or hearing. Not all birds are scent-search specialists like bloodhounds. But for those evolved to take advantage of aroma whiffs, olfaction clearly serves essential functions other senses may not satisfy. 

So while not every birdbrain prioritizes smell, we must set aside outdated notions of birds as scentless. The nostrils of a shearwater, albatross, or petrel reveal smell’s importance as a supplementary survival sense that enables otherwise impressive aerial creatures to navigate terrain and reproduce. As research continues unpacking avian abilities, we are reminded that underestimating bird brains – and beaks – sells our feathered friends short. When it comes to birds, there’s clearly more to their sensory world than meets the eye!