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Although much is known about the noses and olfactory systems of animals, few researchers and scientists in ornithology discuss birds’ sense of smell. You may have asked yourself what kinds of birds they can smell, or even if they can smell humans.

Despite the strong sense of hearing and sight, most birds have underdeveloped olfactory glands that prevent them from smelling scents or odours. Some bird species, such as vultures, parrots, cranes, rails, grebes, and nightjars, have a good sense of smell.

Some animal species, including marine giants, have excellent senses of smell. For instance, sharks can respond to small amounts of blood miles away in the ocean. A dog’s nose has over 220 million olfactory receptors, allowing them to detect smells efficiently.

Humans have five million olfactory receptors, making us less effective when detecting scents than many other animal species.

A growing body of research shows that birds have highly developed senses, including their ability to see, hear, and detect magnetic fields.

Many people have asked me many questions about birds sense of smell. How well do birds smell? What kinds of birds can smell? Which bird has the best sense of smell? Can birds smell food and humans? Today’s article will answer these questions based on the available research evidence.

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Photo of yellow bird

Which bird has the best sense of smell?

A recent study shows that turkey vultures have the best sense of smell among all bird species. There are 23 vulture species in the world. Unlike other vultures, turkey vultures have finely-attuned scent-detection capabilities that allow them to find food and prevent threats within their habitats.

According to LA Times, Kenneth Stager, an ornithologist, conducted various anatomical studies in the early 60s. Stager found that turkey vultures had a large olfactory bulb, a sophisticated brain area that detects and processes odours.

A report published online shows that turkey vultures have four times larger olfactory bulbs than other species of the same genus. Researchers compared the olfactory bulb of turkey vultures with 143 species and analyzed the bulb’s size in the brain’s volume.

Turkey vultures have two times more mitral cells than black vultures and other species. These cells play a crucial role in transmitting smell-related stimuli to the brain. These cells also streamline sensitivity and response levels to the bird’s sense of smell.

What kind of birds can smell?

According to an article from Stanford University, birds do not have a highly developed sense of smell compared to other animal species. One of the primary reasons is their habitat, as scents and odours disperse quickly in the air. This is why birds do not rely on their sense of smell for finding food, detecting enemies, or locating obstacles.

However, all birds have olfactory receptors and a scent-smelling system in their nasal passages. The power of detecting and processing smell depends on the size of the olfactory bulb in a bird’s brain.

Researchers conclude that some bird species, including cranes, rails, grebes, and nightjars, have a well-developed sense of smell than other species like parrots, pelicans, passerines, and woodpeckers.

Researchers and ornithologists have conducted thorough experimental studies, concluding that some bird species, such as ducks, pigeons, chickens, sparrows, albatrosses, and vultures, can detect the smell.

The sense of smell is well-developed in Kiwis and other birds native to Australia and New Zealand. Northern Fulmars and Sooty Shearwaters can smell the odour of fish oils, krill, and squid. Other bird species with tubenoses, including Pink-footed Shearwater and Ashy Storm-Petrel, can also detect and process smell.

Vulture

Can birds smell food?

Although some birds have a well-developed sense of smell, they rarely use it for smelling or finding food. Most bird species use their sense of sight and hearing to detect danger, shelter, and food.

Turkey vultures are among the few bird species that use their sense of smell to detect food and smell food from a long distance. Some studies show that these species can smell food over a mile away.

Similarly, sea birds with long wingspans are even better than turkey vultures in smelling food. Unlike turkey vultures, albatrosses and large sea birds can detect scents 12 miles away. However, there is a need for more research to confirm the efficacy of sea birds’ sense of smell.

Birds fly around the area from the treetops to search for food. Some birds, such as vultures, kiwis, and parrots, have a good sense of smell, allowing them to locate food using their well-developed olfactory bulb and glands. This is not the same with most birds, as most use their vision to look for food.

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Can birds smell humans?

Because most birds have underdeveloped olfactory bulbs, nerves, and glands, they have a limited sense of smell. So, this means birds can’t smell humans.

There is a need for thorough experiments and research studies to determine whether birds can smell humans. The current evidence does not highlight anything related to this topic. There is a common fallacy that birds abandon their young ones when humans touch them.

People believe that birds smell the human scent on their babies and leave them alone because they consider it a threat to their survival. However, this is a misconception and myth.

Not a single research study confirms these theories. Birds rarely use their olfactory senses and rely more on their sense of hearing and sight to carry out their functions.

Conclusion

There is ongoing research on birds’ capabilities of detecting scents, but most birds do not have a good sense of smell. Because of their underdeveloped olfactory glands, birds rely on hearing and sight.

Some bird species, such as vultures, parrots, cranes, rails, grebes, and nightjars, have a good sense of smell. Moreover, birds use a combination of senses to carry out their routine tasks, such as locating their nests, finding food, selecting a mate, and mitigating the risk of enemy attacks.

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