Mariton: Egg on my Face

January 1, 2020

by Tim Burris, Preserve Manager

I was wrong.  I’ll say it again.  It seems like a good way to start a New Year.  I was wrong.

I recently started reading Super Navigators by David Barrie.  (I’ll write about the book later when I finish it.)  In one of the early chapters, Mr. Barrie talks about how homing pigeons use smells to help navigate. (Uncomfortable pause)  I read the sentence again.  Then again and again.  I thought to myself, “Whoa this guy has credibility issues at the beginning of the book.”

I had always heard and read that only a handful of birds in the world could smell.  (Turkey Vultures being one of the handful of birds in the world that could smell.)  Even my birding buddies concurred with that “fact”.  This book was rocking my world and I needed to do a little research on the ability of birds to smell.  It seems that going back to 1965 there has been some solid research on different birds being able to smell.  1965??? How did I miss that?

Well, as I read more, it seems there were a couple things that steered me (and many others) wrong.  John James Audubon (the consummate “bird guy”) did some experiments in the 1820’s.  His research methods were less than rigorous from a 21st Century perspective, but he demonstrated that Turkey Vultures found food by sight and not smell.  It wasn’t until the 1960’s that someone thought to test Audubon’s work and proved that Turkey Vultures did indeed find food by smelling it.

In addition to Mr. Audubon experiment, scientists knew that birds lacked the vomeronasal organ that we use to detect smells.  Additionally, the part of the brain associated with smelling was under-developed, or non-existent in birds.  (That is the information that I had known about.)  As sometimes happens in science, research gets cited over and over until it becomes ingrained, and no one bothers to test it.  It is no excuse, but as I researched this topic, I found several websites still perpetuated the myth that  birds can’t smell.

There is some very good science on birds smelling (and it is growing).  I found the best explanation and overview on birds sense of smell here.  There are differences in species’ abilities to detect smells, but most have some sense of smell.

So… I WAS WRONG.  Worse yet, I perpetuated the falsehood by telling lots of people over the years that birds don’t smell.  How many times can I say, “I was wrong”?  Anyway, now you know why I’m walking around with egg on my face.