Birds can sniff out their own species

By Karl Gruber August 25, 2014
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For the first time, it’s been shown that birds can sniff out their own kind by the smell of their feathers

A BIRD’S SENSE of smell may be just as important as its sight in identifying family or potential mates.

Crimson rosellas (Platycercus elegans), colourful parrots that inhabit eastern and south-eastern Australia, can identify their own subspecies based on the odour of another bird’s plumage, according to a new Australian study.

The findings, published recently in the journal Animal Behaviour, represent the first known case of such ability in any bird species.

Birds are well known for using colour as a signal to tell between potential mates or to distinguish their own species, but little is known about their olfactory abilities.

“These results are important and interesting because there is a traditional notion that birds have little to no sense of smell,” says Milla Mihailova, lead author of the paper and PhD student at Deakin University, in Geelong, Victoria.

Birds smell feathers to sniff out kin

In the study, researchers tracked the behaviour of female crimson rosellas incubating eggs on nest-boxes and found they preferentially nest on boxes that smell like an individual of the same subspecies or species.

Likewise, females also showed a preference for a particular sex based on smell, Milla told Australian Geographic.

“Females returned to and entered the nest-boxes and spent more time in and on the nest-boxes when a male – in contrast to a female – odour was present.”

Discovering the birds’ keen sense of smell was a welcoming surprise, says Milla.

“It’s exciting to know that crimson rosellas do in fact have a sense of smell and make use of it, as they are very smelly birds. Often, when we handle the birds, it takes a lot of effort to wash out the smell from our hands and clothes. Even museum specimens which are over 30 years old still have this distinct odour.”

To produce such smelly profile for no specific reason would have been strange, Milla says.

Bird smells may be key to diversity

Birds are an ancient group – they lived alongside non-avian dinosaurs for at least 80 million years – and they are also highly diverse. With more than 10,500 species, they outnumber mammals, amphibians and reptiles. However, it is not clear just how they divided to form so many species.

Finding about birds’ little-known sense of smell may provide valuable insight about how they became so diverse, says Dr Francesco Bonadonna, a behaviour ecologist from the National Center for Scientific Research in Montpellier, France.

“If birds develop a simple olfactory preference for their own ‘group’ odours – probably originally shaped by different ecologies and/or environmental conditions, for example, foraging – this might isolate groups of phylogenetically-close subjects and lead to speciation”.

If this holds true for more species, it may help explain why there are so many varieties of birds.