Do birds have sense of smell?
One of my readers contacted me via email today to ask the question: “Do birds have a sense of smell?” It’s a really good question and one I’d never really given much thought to.
Thanks to Bev for this question. (You are the first to use my contact form – see the sidebar.)
Do birds have a sense of smell?
The short answer is yes, they do.
The long answer is more complicated.
The upper mandible (beak) is pierced by the nostrils. Usually the nostrils are near the base of the bill. Relatively few birds are known to use the sense of smell in their search for food; indeed in most species the sense of smell seems to be poorly developed. (Quoted from the book “Birds: their life, their ways, their world” published by the Reader’s Digest in 1979)
So they can smell but most species do not rely on this sense much at all.
Birds that have a good sense of smell
There are always exceptions to the rule!
Some birds do have a highly developed sense of smell. The New Zealand Kiwi, for example, has nostril placed near the tip of the bill and this enables it to smell its food as it probes the earth and leaf litter. The kiwi has a double whammy; not only does it have very poor eyesight, it is also mostly nocturnal in its habits. Having a fine sense of smell is a definite bonus if you are a Kiwi (the bird, not the people of New Zealand!).
I also remember a sequence on “The Life of Birds” videos featuring David Attenborough where he hides a piece of rotten meat under the leaf litter deep in a rainforest. Within minutes the local Turkey Vultures had found the hidden meat, even though they had been several kilometres away.
Likewise some seabirds are able to smell great distances:
For example, fulmars can smell fish oils from up to 25 kilometres (15 miles) downwind, so when these oils form a slick on the sea surface as a result predatory fish and mammals attacking shoals of fish and squid underwater, the fulmar are quickly at the scene to forage for food. Other sea birds can smell a pheromone that fish give off when stressed. (British Garden Birds website)
Birds do have a sense of smell, but most rarely use this sense. Some species, however, rely heavily on their sense of smell for their survival.
Thanks again to Bev for this very interesting question.