Do birds have a sense of smell?

Perhaps you’ve heard this old-wives’ tale: “if you touch a baby bird, its parents will reject it because it smells like humans”. This tale isn’t true, because birds have a very poor sense of smell. They rely instead on good eyesight and hearing to find their food.

But every rule has its exceptions. For example, Turkey Vultures have an excellent sense of smell. These North American scavengers have large nostrils, and a large part of the brain devoted to processing smells. They can sniff out their favorite food: the carcasses of dead animals.

Engineers in 1930’s California first proved the talent of the Turkey Vulture’s nose. They discovered Turkey Vultures circling above leaks in gas pipelines. It turns out the birds were attracted to mercaptan, the odorous chemical added to natural gas so we humans could smell dangerous leaks ourselves. The engineers started using the circling vultures to discover where they needed to fix the pipeline.

Most other vultures in North America (along with all African vultures) don’t share the Turkey Vulture’s special talent. But they have excellent eyesight. They’ll use their sharp eyes to spot Turkey Vulture flocks. They soon head over to investigate what the Turkey Vulture has sniffed out.