They Use Cologne

1 August 2011:

For years scientists have said, “Songbirds have a poor sense of smell.”

Other than turkey vultures’ famous olfactory abilities, word was that most of bird-dom didn’t particularly notice scents.  Songbirds were specifically placed in this category because they have the smallest olfactory bulbs relative to brain size.  However, they do have a lot of olfactory receptors and they must be using them for something — but what?

Danielle Whittaker, managing director of Michigan State University’s BEACON Center, decided to find out.  She and her colleagues tested preen oil scents among three populations of dark-eyed juncos: Carolina, white-winged and Oregon (pictured above).  They used three populations because the scents among subspecies would be different enough to show general scent preferences.

The results were surprising.  Yes, juncos have scent preferences and they use them to attract a mate.

Female juncos visually prefer larger males but based on scent alone the smaller males won hands down.  They produced more scent and it was far more attractive to the females.  It didn’t matter what population they came from, the ladies came flocking.  “What’s that scent you’re wearing?”  The larger males came too, probably as an aggressive response.

To me this is revolutionary.  Not only do songbirds have a sense of smell but they use cologne.

I must say I feel a little betrayed.  For years I believed that songbirds can’t smell and passed it on to friends and readers.  Now I find out it’s wrong.

Forget what I told you in the past.  Of course birds can smell!

Click the photo for Science Daily‘s article or here for the full report from Michigan State’s BEACON Center.


(photo of dark-eyed juncos linked from Science Daily, courtesy of Michigan State University BEACON)

3 thoughts on “They Use Cologne

  1. A hummingbird seemed to “smell” the hazelnut coffee perking while we were camping. It flew right up to the coffee spout.

  2. Do they think it’s smell in the traditional sense (no pun intended), or do they think it might be more like pheromones?

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