When we try to understand the world around us, we see it through the lens of humans. It’s completely natural to do because it’s how we interact with the world, but it can be problematic when trying to get an accurate vision of the things around us. This could not be truer than figuring out how birds interact with the world.
For example, the sense of smell plays a pretty big part of our daily lives; we use smell to tell whether something is rotten, when there is danger (smoke or fire) and other useful things. But for many bird species, the sense of smell is fairly insignificant.
Yes, birds have a sense of smell and recent studies say that it’s more developed than we had previously thought, but it still doesn’t play as big of a part of their lives as humans or other animals.
All birds have some sort of olfactory system that gives them the sense of smell, but it’s very difficult to decipher when and what they use it for. Even John James Audubon conducted experiments to see whether vultures use smell to find their meals.
In his experiment, he put out a painting of a dead sheep and found that the vultures tugged at the canvas. The next time he hid dead meat next to the painting, but the vultures still tugged at the canvas instead of the nearby hidden meat. He felt this was enough to disprove the theory that birds don’t have a strong sense of smell.
Later experiments by scientists found that vultures do have a good sense of smell, so the verdict is still out on to what extent they use their smell. Audubon’s Carolyn Shea quoted ornithologist Kenn Kaufman giving a great reason for why figuring out the sense of smell in birds is so hard:
“How do you know whether the bird is actually smelling something? You can’t say, ‘Raise your right wing if you smell this.’ “
Small songbirds probably don’t have much use for smell, but some petrels use smell to detect relatives (and therefore avoid incest) and locate their burrows. Other seabirds use the smell of fish oils or krill to find food. Kiwis in New Zealand also reportedly have a strong sense of smell that they use to find earthworms.
So the next time someone asks you whether birds have a sense of smell, you can give them the simple answer of yes, but add a caveat that each bird species is different and it’s near impossible to find out to what extent they use it.
But you can still assure everyone that a mother bird will not reject a chick if it smells human on it.