Can birds smell? All about bird’s sense of smell

People simply assume that birds can’t smell well because they don’t have real noses. But be aware, appearances can be deceiving!

Birds can smell and some of them use their sense of smell for finding food, navigating, and identifying their family members.

Do birds have a good sense of smell?

Despite the long-standing belief that birds lack any sense of smell, it was verified that almost all birds possess sense organs for smell, which comes to the conclusion: yes, birds can smell.

But to which extent they use their noses is open for debate as their sense of smell is definitely not as good as ours.

Researchers suspect that the sense of smell may play a greater role than previously thought. Recent research reveals that birds have a high number of active genes that are associated with smell. According to research from the Max Planck Institute, some bird species use their sense of smell to navigate, forage, or even to distinguish individuals and locate nesting spots.

Smelling dinner

Olfaction plays a key role in foraging in birds. They can find food by sight or smell alone, with a higher success when both senses are used in combination. Birds also use smell to distinguish unsavory food from those that are pleasing and safe to eat.

Albatrosses may use olfaction to find food almost 50% of the time

Nose compass

To some birds, especially seabirds, following scents may be as good as reading a road map, since smell helps them navigate the skies.

Wandering albatross have an excellent sense of smell – Photo by Jorge Pereira

In research done by the University of Oxford, scientists compared bird migrations when temporarily removing the sense of smell from one test subject. This bird still managed to find its own home but showed significantly different orientation behavior from the controls during the at-sea stage of their return journeys. Their orientation then improved when approaching land, suggesting that birds must consult their sense of smell when out of sight of land but are subsequently able to find a home using familiar landscape features.

You smell like my cousin

There are various ways individuals may recognize kin, and smell has recently been found to be quite a common mechanism in mammals, but there had been little evidence for this in birds.

That was only until research was done with European storm petrels. Scientists realized that birds don’t just have a sense of smell, but many emit different scents of their own. This helps birds to find their family or even start a family of their own, kind of like a game of smell-and-go-seek. Some birds may use their noses even to smell for other birds.

In the study, scientists discovered that European storm petrels pick out their relatives from smell alone. When breeding, they avoid the scent of a relative in favor of approaching the smell of an unrelated bird. In 18 years of studying these birds, the scientists have never found a related pair nesting together.

Which birds can smell?

The birds below are known for having a good sense of smell and using it in a relevant way. But these are exceptions in the bird world.

Kiwi birds

The Kiwi bird’s sense of smell can be even better than humans if compared to our genes. They have 600 smell-related genes while humans have 400.

The Kiwi is is the only bird in the world with external nostrils at the tip of its long beak. This bird literally smells with his beak!

Kiwi hunting for worms using his long beak – Photo by Southern Discoveries

He is able to use smell to sniff out earthworms underground, even from a distance. When kiwis inspect the forest floor in search of food, they are guided by smell rather than sight.

Kiwis sometimes make pig-like noises, snuffling and snorting loudly to clear dirt from their nostrils. They have evolved to fill a niche that is taken up by mammals like hedgehogs in other parts of the world. Indeed, nocturnal kiwis are sometimes considered to be New Zealand’s equivalent of a hedgehog!

Turkey Vulture

Previously, they were thought to not be able to smell because of a failed experiment by the famous naturalist, John James Audubon. He laid two carcasses on the ground. One was fake, just deerskin stuffed with grass and the other was real. Audubon expected the turkey vulture to find the real one, but in reality, the bird completely avoided both carcasses.

The truth is that the turkey vulture was actually avoiding the real carcass because it was too old for his taste! When Kenneth Stager redid the experiment almost 100 years later using fresh carcasses, the smell piqued quickly the vulture’s interest, debunking Audubon’s theory.

Turkey vultures have big nostrils to smell carcasses from distance – Photo by Judy Gallagher

In fact, turkey vultures have one of the strongest senses of smells among birds. They have a distinctly pronounced nasal cavity and have been known to smell food that was over a mile away.

As it turns out, carcasses smell like natural gas. Some engineers took advantage of the turkey’s vulture ability to find leaks in a 42-mile pipeline. The engineers watched to see where turkey vultures gathered and they were surprised to find out that the birds found the leaks.

Other birds of prey such as buzzards, red kites, and red-Tailed Hawk are also said to have a sense of smell.

Seabirds

The smell is a very important sense when you’re up in the sky trying to fish in the ocean. In general, the tube-nosed seabirds have large olfactory lobes and good senses of smell. Some seabirds species have 37% of their brains reserved for an olfactory bulb.

The wandering albatrosses, for example, are like feathered bloodhounds! They may use olfaction to find food almost 50% of the time. These feathered hounds are capable to sniff food for 12 miles from their starting point, zigzagging upwind to keep track of the patchy odor plume.

Albatrosses can even smell the scent that krill give off when they are eaten by fish. That helps them find the fish via the krill.

Juncos

Juncos use smell to identify gender. They secrete a preen oil at the base of their tail. The strength and quality of the scent can play a role in determining how attractive a male junco is considered to be.

Parrots

The Kakapo is a parrot that openly responds to smells. In her article, Barbara Heidenreich describes her experience with a Kakapo parrot. They press their nostrils against its object of interest, in her case, her hair and skin. Then, the bird inhales the air and preens itself, demonstrating enthusiasm for different kinds of scents.

Hummingbirds

The sense of smell for hummingbirds is founded on the mantra of avoidance. They can tell when there is an unusual scent in hummingbird feeders.

Warblers

Warblers can be frequently seen swooping over bird feeders and hummingbirds in search of insects and nectar.

Starlings

Starlings seem to have a decent sense of smell – at least they are attracted to peanut butter used in suet.

Storks

Storks are attracted by the smell of the mown grass, which means a perfect opportunity to forage.

Pigeons

Homing pigeons can locate their lofts by smelling nearby air.

In research done by Bernice Wenzel, every time she exposed the pigeons to scented air, their heart rates went up, proving that pigeons do have a sense of smell.

A less ‘potent’ nose is still better than no nose

Not being able to smell as good as a dog is not a problem for birds. They still use their sense of smell in a strategic manner to attract mates or to defend themselves from predators.

Bird cologne

You heard it well! Some birds use ‘cologne’ to attract gals!

The European starling takes advantage of its nose to decorate its nests with aromatic herbs. The females are attracted to them during the breeding season.

Juncos also join the bird cologne selected group. The males secrete a preen oil through their tails and the stronger the scent is, the more females it will attract.

Additionally, male crested auklets have little orange feathers on their heads that they use to attract females. But they also give off a citrus scent, along the lines of lemons and tangerines, that the females can use to find them.

You can’t eat me if I stink

Baby chicks use a stinky solution to avoid getting eaten by predators while their parents are out.

They vomit a foul-smelling liquid that is supposed to smell bad enough to defer predators from swallowing them. That not only helps in their survival but also acts as a strong alarm scent that will prevent their parents from coming back to the nest unprepared for a dangerous situation.

Somebody else was here

Blue tits will refuse to enter their nest in case they catch a whiff of the weasel’s scent. In a similar way, Eurasian rollers will be alarmed if they smell a different scent from what they’re used to.

Can birds smell humans on their babies?

No, birds don’t smell humans on their babies! They don’t have a great sense of smell, so no worries, you can put baby chicks back in their nests. The birds won’t reject their babies because of your smell.

However, birds have excellent vision and hearing senses. That means you must be in the watch and shouldn’t be caught by their parents while putting the chick back. Crows will probably attack you furiously!

Which bird has the best sense of smell?

Biologists generally assume that animals with larger olfactory bulbs and more receptor genes have a stronger sense of smell and the winner in this category is the Kiwi. Not the fruit, but the bird!

The Kiwi is a flightless bird known for its excellent sense of smell. The kiwi’s brain has parts dedicated to smell and its olfactory bulb is among the largest in birds. 600 genes dedicated for the smell! Humans have 400 when compared to it.

Beak tip of a great spotted kiwi. Photo: DOC.
Kiwi bird’s nostrils at the tip of their beak – Photo by Predator Freenz

They have nostrils located at the tip of their beak, being able to smell out food beneath the surface of the ground.

Kiwi will hunt at night and dig their beaks into the ground to a depth that extends the entire length of the bill in order to find earthworms underground and other invertebrates. 

This ranking was a close call since both turkey vultures and wandering albatrosses can pick up scents miles away are have an impressive sense of smell.

How strong is a birds sense of smell?

Most birds have a sense of smell that ranges around half of what humans can smell. For instance, songbirds have about 200 genes that encode olfactory receptors while humans have 400.

However, being able to have half our sense of smell is still not that bad. For example, Blue Tits, which are known for having a low sense of smell, will refuse to enter their nest boxes when they catch a whiff of the chemical cue of weasels.

On the contrary, other birds, such as the Kakapos and Kiwis, have an exceptional sense of smell, being able to discover worms underneath the earth without hardly any visual clue, just using their noses.

Can birds smell seeds or bread?

Wondering how chickadees manage to ‘discover’ a freshly replenished bird feeder? Wondering why crows suddenly appear as you throw in bread?

This probably doesn’t have anything to do with their sense of smell. Although some species, such as starlings can smell peanuts in suets, most of the time, birds rely on their teamwork, excellent vision, and sharp memories to forage for food.

Watch closely as you replenish your bird feeder. If birds know of a reliable location for finding food, they will memorize it, even after years. They will have ‘scouts’ checking the area from time to time. When food is found, they will communicate with their friends to tell everyone is breakfast time.

Can birds smell danger?

Some birds can definitely smell the scent of predators in their nests. The Blue Tit bird, for instance, can tell when a weasel has visited its nest.

In another research, scientists verified that hummingbirds were able to smell danger when trying out different bird feeders. The researchers used two hummingbird feeders. One had normal plain sugar water and another had an extra dose of sugar, but a harmful chemical produced by bees was added to the water. The birds could pick up the smell of the dangerous chemical and avoid the tainted feeder.

The olfactory senses of hummingbirds help them in detecting decaying dead bodies, which may point to potential danger.

Can birds smell predators?

Yes, and the sharpness of their sense of smell, especially to those that raise their young in holes in trees can be very important for their survival.

According to research that analyzed the tit species, some birds are capable of determining whether their major predators, weasels or martens or wild cats have got into their nests or are approaching. These birds had to use their sense of smell, particularly because of the limited visibility inside their nests.

Birds are not only capable of detecting potential predators through chemical signals, but they also alter their behavior depending on the perceived level of threat

Can birds smell suet?

Some birds can! Woodpeckers and starlings are known for being able to pick up on the peanut’s scent.

How do birds smell?

Birds have a section of their brains called olfactory bulbs. This section decodes the scent information and helps them make decisions based on the situation. For instance, in research done by Bernice Wenzel, pigeons would heart rates went up whenever they picked up a scented air that resembled food.

Additionally, it’s important to notice that birds usually combine their sense of smell with other senses, especially vision and hearing.

Different kinds of bird nostrils

Bird nostrils

Birds don’t have their noses connected to their beaks (except for the kiwi). Instead, they have a nasal passage, or nostrils, built into their beaks. These tissue-covered bone passages are responsible for detecting and distinguishing smells, as well as for breathing. The bigger the passage, the better the bird will be able to smell and that will vary per species.

Sometimes, like in some species of parrots, the nostrils are covered with feathers, which can make it difficult for us to see them.

There are two holes – one on each side of a bird’s beak. The beaks of birds are different sizes and shapes – long or short, small or large, straight or curved, and wide or thin. This way, the nostrils are in different places for different species of birds. 

Smelling with their mouths

When you’re a seabird and you’re diving in water at 54 mph (86.4 km/h, or 24 m/s), you probably wouldn’t want to water up to your nose, correct? Well, the gannet bird evolved in such a way to completely lose its external nostrils to avoid dealing with this trouble.

Gannet birds don’t have ‘external’ noses

In this interesting article, Curious Sengi reveals how gannets are able to solve this conundrum. They lost their nostrils, so how can they breathe or smell? Throughout time, gannets developed a second set of nostrils, but this time within their beaks! They can literally smell its food within the mouth!

What smells do birds hate?

Apparently, birds seem to not be fond of the smells below:

  • Citronella
  • Vinegar
  • Ammonia
  • Bleach
  • Peppermint
  • Garlic
  • Mothball
  • Cayenne Pepper
  • Chili
  • Cleaning products
  • Cigarettes
  • Essential oils
  • Anthranilate (insect/ bird repellent)

Not only some of these smells are unpleasant, but some of them can be toxic to birds.

What smells do birds like?

Birds seem to appreciate smelling the things below:

  • Floral scents
  • Lavender
  • Citrus fruits rinds
  • Tangerines

How far away can birds smell?

Seabirds like wandering albatrosses can pick scents in the sky for over 12 miles!

Conclusion

Despite common belief, birds can smell and some of them have a sophisticated olfactory communication that is relevant for their species.