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What Do Birds Smell?
What do birds smell? Among the many birds of the world, some are, without doubt, prodigious smellers. Turkey Vultures have a supremely keen sense of smell to lead them upwind from great distances to their malodorous feasts. Gray Catbirds may use their sense of smell to help them on migration. Diminutive seabirds called storm-petrels (like this Leach's Storm-Petrel) are olfactory savants - they can detect the scent of prey from a distance of 25 kilometers!
What Do Birds Smell?
Written by Bob Sundstrom
This is BirdNote!
Birds are justly renowned for their highly sensitive eyesight and hearing. Consider the exquisitely keen eye of the eagle, [Bald Eagle call] or the unerringly acute ear of the owl [A brief bit of Great Horned Owl calling].
But what about birds’ sense of smell? Among the many birds of the world, some are, without doubt, prodigious smellers. [Ocean waves] Diminutive seabirds called storm-petrels are olfactory savants – they can detect the scent of prey from a distance of 25 kilometers!
The kiwis of New Zealand sniff the ground for earthworms [Brown Kiwi calls] before probing deeply to intercept their wiggly prey. Turkey Vultures also have a supremely keen sense of smell to lead them upwind from great distances to their malodorous feasts.
[Fox Sparrow song]
Songbirds were long thought to have a poor sense of smell, because the olfactory center in their brains is proportionally tiny. However, current research suggests that some songbirds may use smell to find food, select prime nest material, and even help navigate across vast regions.
[Gray Catbird call]
Experiments in the US with migratory Gray Catbirds show that, for adult birds repeating a migration route, sense of smell is more important for than either orientation using the sun or using the earth’s magnetic field. It may well be that many songbirds “smell” their way back to last year’s nesting site. [Gray Catbird]
For BirdNote, I’m Michael Stein.
Bird audio provided by The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Bald Eagle call recorded by J. R. Storm. Great Horned Owl duet recorded by W.R. Fish. Fox Sparrow song by L.J. Peyton. Gray Catbird song recorded by G.F. Budney. Gray Catbird call recorded by W.L. Hershberger.
Brown Kiwi calls recorded and provided by Martyn Stewart, naturesound.org
Ambient audio by Kessler Productions.
Producer: John Kessler
Executive Producer: Chris Peterson
© 2012 Tune In to Nature.org May 2012 Narrator: Michael Stein
ID# 042707smellKOHO smell-01b-2010-04-15-MS
Primary fact reference: Leahy, Christopher W. The Birdwatcher’s Companion to North American Wildlife. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.
For more background on the science behind this article, see: