Ask Dr. Universe – Birds’ Nostrils

Dear Dr. Universe: I am wondering if birds can smell because I have chickens and have seen their nostrils! –Lila, 9, Philadelphia, PA

Dear Lila,

Birds have nostrils, or nares, on their beaks that can help them smell all kinds of things.

That’s what I found out from my friend Dave Oleyar, a scientist with HawkWatch who recently taught a course on ornithology at Washington State University.

He said that when an animal breathes air, they can also breathe in different scents, or combinations of molecules.

The nose has receptors that pick up on scents and send information to the brain, including a part called an olfactory bulb. It’s all part of the olfactory system. You have an olfactory system, too. This system can help animals navigate the world through a sense of smell.

Maybe you’ve used your olfactory system to smell your breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Birds can also use their olfactory systems to sniff out food. Oleyar told me about a few different birds and their amazing smell abilities.

The kiwi bird uses its long bill to dig into the dirt. Its nostrils are on the outside and very tip of its bill.

“It’s thought that they use that sense of smell to pick up chemicals emitted by their food. Grubs, worms, and other things that are in the ground,” Oleyar said.

Oleyar said one bird of prey that has a really great sense of smell are turkey vultures. He said vultures are scavengers, meaning they eat dead animals.

“They have an incredible sense of smell. They use their nose to pick up chemicals from things that are decaying,” he said.

Turkey vultures have one of the strongest senses of smells among birds. They have been known to smell food that was over a mile away.

But albatrosses, big sea birds that can have wingspans around ten feet, have been known to sniff out food from even greater distances—about 12 miles away.

These big seabirds can pick up chemicals from dead fish or groups of fish. They can even smell the scent that krill give off when they are eaten by fish. That helps them find the fish via the krill.

Birds don’t just have a sense of smell, but many emit different scents of their own. Some birds may use their noses to smell for other birds. This can help them find their family or even start a family of their own, kind of like a game of smell-and-go-seek.

The 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.

While a sense of smell is helpful for birds, it isn’t the only useful or even sometimes the strongest sense—they also use their senses of hearing, sight, and taste. The next time you watch your chickens, or other birds in the neighborhood, maybe you can observe how they use all these senses.

Dr. Universe


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