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Can birds smell?

Updated: Apr 25, 2023

How do we find the answer to this complex question? We follow our nose! The answer to this question may surprise you!

A Turkey Vulture opens its mouth while perching.
Turkey Vultures are a bird species with a great sense of smell!

Can birds smell? What gives a bird its sense of smell? Which birds have the best sense of smell? Will birds abandon nests due to human smell? These questions are a common set that we get asked almost weekly. Here, we will offer succinct answers to these frustrating and confusing questions!


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Can birds smell?

Until recently (the last ten years), the popular belief was that most birds do not have a keen sense of smell, if at all. However, recent evidence suggests that most species of birds do have the ability to recognize many chemosignals, though this ability is not as strong as in mammals. In short, likely all birds can smell, somewhat. Some birds, such as seabirds, can navigate to distant prey by utilizing chemosignals. Others, like Turkey Vultures, can smell rotting carcasses even when covered in plant matter. Kiwis combine olfaction (smelling) and tactile (touch) senses to find and capture prey. Smaller birds, like songbirds, likely use a sense of smell to identify individuals of differing ages and sex within their own species! Each individual bird can produce a unique smell that allows for identification!


Why do some birds have a better sense of smell?

The sense of smell is tied to the olfactory bulb in the brain. In birds, the species that have the most well-developed olfactory bulb typically have the strongest sense of smell. The size of the nares likely plays little to no role in a bird's ability to smell chemosignals. Species with the keenest sense of smell are often those that have a need to detect prey from a greater distance.

 

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Which birds have the best sense of smell?

Seabirds may have the most impressive sense of smell for birds. The Wandering Albatross can actually detect prey species from over 1.5 miles away! These albatrosses will fly crosswind, which optimizes the chance of finding and following an odor plume of their prey. Some seabirds also use their sense of smell to find their own burrows! Imagine navigating back to your home only using your nose.


New World vultures, like the Turkey and King Vulture, can detect a rotting carcass even under piles of tropical plant leaves. The chemical New World vultures detect is ethyl mercaptan. However, Old World vultures do not appear to use olfaction (smell) to find their carrion food items.


Other birds with a great to average sense of smell are the Kiwi, Kakapo parrots, Blue Tits, pigeons, European Starlings, and the Crested Auklet. Each of these species uses their sense of smell for something very specific; however, they also all may be able to use their sense of smell to identify individuals.

 

Nikon Monarch M5 binoculars are a great entry birding binocular!

Nikon Monarch M5 Binocular
 

Will birds abandon babies or nests touched by humans due to smell?

There is an outdated rumor that touching a baby bird will cause the parents to abandon the baby or the nest it is held in. The thought was that the smell of humans would cause the bird to avoid the area. While birds do have a sense of smell, their ability to use olfaction to detect predators may be minimal. In short, no, birds will not abandon nests and babies due to the smell of humans.


 

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