Can Birds Smell?

Legendary birdman John James Audubon would tell you decisively that, no, birds can't smell. In the 1820s, Audubon designed two experiments to prove that turkey vultures followed their eyes, not their noses, to carrion. First, the naturalist left a stuffed deer in a meadow with its legs in the air. Before long, the deer attracted the attention of a vulture, who dropped out of the sky to investigate. Finding nothing but grass inside the fake deer, the vulture took off.

The second experiment took place in the sweltering heat of July. Audubon dragged a decaying pig carcass into a ravine and covered the body with brush. The vultures spotted it, but they weren’t interested. That was that, said Audubon. No smell.

For more than a century, scientists took him at his word. Then, in the 1960s, an ornithologist at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum named Kenneth Stager realized why vultures ignored Audubon’s carcass in the woods: it was just too gross. Like any discriminating diner, a turkey vulture prefers a fresh carcass [PDF], no more than four days old.

Through rather odd means, Stager learned that vultures actually do use smell. A gas company worker mentioned to him that turkey vultures would congregate around leaks in the pipeline, showing up so reliably that they began to use the birds as leak detectors.

This behavior occurred because the company had added a smelly chemical called ethyl mercaptan to the gas. You know what else gives off ethyl mercaptan? Carrion. Stager was able to tie the two together to suggest that vultures do in fact sniff their way to supper.

Stager wasn’t the only scientist interested in bird olfaction. In 1965, physiologist Bernice Wenzel of UCLA hooked pigeons up to heart monitors and exposed them to strong smells. The pigeons’ heart rates spiked each time a scent wafted their way. Then she attached electrodes to the pigeons’ olfactory bulbs (the smell centers of the brain) and started again. The results were just as dramatic.

In the half-century since, scientists have tested more than a hundred bird species, and all of them have had at least some sense of smell.

At times, their experiments have swerved into the realm of the bizarre. Sensory ecologist Gabrielle Nevitt once soaked super-absorbent tampons in fish-scented oil and tied the tampons to kites, launching them over the sea. The experiment worked a little too well: after a short while, the swarming seabirds were so intense that Nevitt had to bring the kites down in order to keep them from getting tangled in the strings.

Just how much a bird can smell depends on its species. The humble kiwi has one of the strongest senses of smell in the bird family, and it’s the only bird with nostrils at the end of its beak. At night, the kiwis sweep their beak tips along the ground like metal detectors, sniffing out earthworms and grubs.

Eurasian rollers, on the other hand, use scent in self-defense. When threatened, roller chicks vomit up an awful-smelling orange liquid. The stink not only deters potential predators, but it also acts as a warning. When the adult birds return to the nest, the scent tells them that a predator has been, and may still be, near.

Other birds use scent as an instrument of seduction. Crested auklets produce a tangerine-scented oil, which they dab all over their feathers like perfume. The better a bird smells, the better its chances of mating.

The same goes for the pudgy, flightless parrot known as the kakapo, which is said to emit a smell like lavender and honey. The kakapo is extremely endangered—there are only 124 left in the wild—so mating is of dire importance. One researcher even considered creating a synthetic kakapo perfume and applying it to unattractive males in the hopes of boosting their chances.

As for Toucan Sam, the jury's still out.

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8 Pro Tips for Taking Incredible Pictures of Your Pets

Thanks to the internet, owning a photogenic pet is now a viable career option. Just ask Theron Humphrey, dog-dad to Maddie the coonhound and the photographer behind the Instagram account This Wild Idea. He gained online fame by traveling across the country and sharing photographs of his dog along the way. But Maddie’s impressive modeling skills aren’t the only key to his success; Humphrey has also mastered some essential photography tricks that even the most casual smartphone photographer can use to make their pet look like a social media star.


Based on her Instagram presence, you’d guess Maddie is either in the middle of a road trip or a scenic hike at any given time. That’s no accident: At a pet photography workshop hosted by Adobe, Humphrey said he often goes out of his way to get that perfect shot. “You need to keep situating yourself in circumstances to continue making great work,” he said, “even if that means burning a tank of gas and going someplace you’ve never been.”


Dog and owner on a couch.

That being said, it’s important to know your pet’s limits. Is your dog afraid of flying? Then leave him with a pet sitter when you vacation abroad. Does your cat hate the water? Resist the temptation to bring her into the kayak with you on your next camping trip, even if it would make for an adorable photo opportunity. “One thing I think is important with animals is to operate within the parameters they exist in,” Humphrey said. “Don’t go too far outside their comfort zone.”


Not every winning pet photo is the result of a hefty travel budget. You can take professional-looking pictures of your pet at home, as long as you know how to work with the space you’re in. Humphrey recommends looking at every element of the scene you’re shooting in and asking what can be changed. Don’t be shy about moving furniture, adjusting the blinds to achieve the perfect lighting, or changing into a weird outfit that will make your pup’s eyes pop.


Two dogs in outfits.

Ella and Coconut Bean.

Trying to capture glamorous photos of a moving, barking target is a hard job. It’s much easier when you have a human companion to assist you. Another set of hands can hold the camera when you want to be in the picture with your pet, or hold a toy or treat to get your dog’s attention. At the very least, they can take your pet away for a 10-minute play session when you need a break.


The advent of digital cameras, including the kind in your smartphone, was a game-changer for pet photographers. Gone are the days when you needed to be picky about your shots to conserve film. Just set your shutter to burst mode and let your camera do the work capturing every subtle blep and mlem your pet makes. Chances are you’ll have plenty of standout shots on your camera roll from which to choose. From there, your hardest job will be “culling” them, as Humphrey says. He recommends uploading them to a photo organizing app like Adobe Lightroom and reviewing your work in two rounds: The first is for flagging any photo that catches your eye, and the second is for narrowing down that pool into an even smaller group of photos you want to publish. Even then, deciding between two shots taken a fraction of a second apart can be tricky. “When photos are too similar, check the focus,” he said. “That’s often the deciding factor.”


When it comes to capturing the perfect pet photo, an expensive camera is often less important than your cat’s favorite feather toy. The most memorable images often include pets that are engaging with the camera. In order to get your pet to look where you want it to, make sure you're holding something your pet will find interesting in your free hand. If your pet perks up at anything that makes noise, find a squeaky toy. If they’re motivated by food, use their favorite treat to get their attention. Don’t forget to reward them with the treat or the toy after they sit for the photo—that way they’ll know to repeat the behavior next time.


Person with hat taking photo of dog and dog food.

According to Humphrey, your pet’s eye should be the focus of most shots you take. In some cases, you may need to do more to make your pet the focal point of the image, even if that means removing your face from the frame altogether. “If there’s a human in the photo, you want to make them anonymous,” Humphrey said. That means incorporating your hands, legs, or torso into a shot without making yourself the star.


This is the mantra Theron Humphrey repeated throughout his workshop. You can scout out the perfect location and find the perfect accessories, but when you’re shooting with animals you have no choice but to leave room for flexibility. “You have to learn to roll with the mistakes,” Humphrey said. What feels like a hyperactive dog ruining your shot in the moment might turn out to be social media gold when it ends up online.


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