May 25, 2013
Written by Jack Sanders
Thursday, 25 August 2011 11:15
How good is a bird’s ability to taste and smell? For the most part, not very. However, both are important senses to many species.
For a long time, ornithologists believed that most birds had little or no sense of smell, but recent research suggests that many birds have good ability to detect scents.
Some birds have an extraordinary sense of smell. From high in the sky, a Turkey Vulture can detect a gas given off by rotting flesh. (The closely related Black Vulture, with which the Turkey Vulture often roosts, is believed to rely on sight to find food. In fact, the sight of a Turkey Vulture on the ground, feeding on a carcass, is probably enough to attract a Black Vulture or two to join in the meal.)Wilson’s Storm-Petrel, a species that spends much of its life at sea, is believed to detect odors given off by plankton. Knowing where there’s plankton tips it off to where fish may be feeding.
Some scientists believe that the Pileated Woodpecker may use its sense of smell to detect the scent of formic acid from its favorite food, ants, found deep in rotting tree wood.
Most birds have nostrils near the backs of the bills. The Kiwi of New Zealand, which is nocturnal and has poor eyesight, has nostrils at the tip of its bill and finds earthworms chiefly by smell. Scientists have tested this ability by filling several containers with soil, and burying earthworms in only one. The Kiwis invariably went straight to the container with the worms.
Another test used to determine whether a species has a good sense of smell involves mixing a strong-smelling substance with samples of food that the bird is known to like, and then repeatedly offering both scented and unscented versions to the bird. If the bird clearly chooses the unscented food, chances are it has a sense of smell.
Birds have a modest ability to taste. Biologists who study birds believe most birds have fewer than 100 “taste buds” on their tongues, not a lot for sampling food. Humans, for instance, have around 10,000. Most of a bird’s taste buds are situated toward the rear of the tongue, which some scientists think may serve as a last test of the quality of the food before swallowing.
Observations of bird eating habits indicate that many species have favorite and not-so-favorite foods. When pressed by hunger, birds will, for instance, eat some kinds of berries they would not normally eat if their favorite food were in plentiful supply. This suggests that taste has something to do with the selection of foods, such as berries, seeds and probably insects.
In some ways, however, a bird’s tongue is more important to a bird than it is to us. Birds use their tongue to find and manipulate food. Watch a cardinal on your feeder. It will pick up a sunflower seed, crunch it with its beak, and then start moving it with its tongue to extract the meat.
Woodpeckers use their barbed tongues probe the holes they make in trees, looking for insects and their eggs. Hummingbirds drink nectar with their forked tongues. Ducks and geese have fringed tongues that they use in combination with their bills to filter food from the water.
Birding with Luke Tiller: Sunday, Aug. 28: Westport Shorebirds, 1 p.m.; Saturday, Sept. 17: Trout Brook Valley, Easton, 7:30 a.m.; Sunday, Sept. 25: Westport Warblers, 7:30 a.m.; Saturday, Oct. 8: Allen’s Meadow and Secret Hotspots in Wilton, 7:30 a.m.; Saturday, Oct. 29: Sparrow Big, 7:30 a.m.; $10 each; To register visit www.sunrisebirding.com/walks.htm.
Birding for Beginners, everything you wanted to know about bird watching, but were afraid to ask, with Luke Tiller, Saturday, Sept. 10, 7:30 to 10:30 a.m., $15, Audubon Greenwich, 613 Riversville Road, Greenwich, 203-869-5272 x221 greenwich.audubon.org.
Birds in their Habitat art exhibition and sale, featuring bird carver Floyd Scholz, Sept. 23 to 25, Connecticut Audubon, 2325 Burr Street, Fairfield, 203-259-6305, ext 407.
HawkWatch Weekend and Green Bazaar, live birds of prey shows, kids activities, food, eco-friendly businesses, more, Oct. 1 and 2, 11 to 5, Audubon Greenwich, 613 Riversville Road, Greenwich, 203-869-5272 x239 greenwich.audubon.org.
Copyright 2011 by Jack Sanders. Send sightings or comments to: jackfsanders [at sign] gmail.com, or to Bird Notes, Box 1019, Ridgefield, CT 06877. If you need help identifying a bird, try your local nature center. If you find an injured bird, call wildlife rehabilitator Darlene Wimbrow of Redding, 203-438-0618, Wildlife in Crisis of Weston, 203-544-9913, or Wild Wings of Greenwich, 203-637-9822. The columnist’s Web site is www. sandersbooks. com.
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