“Can ducks smell?” my husband me asked the other night when, evidently, we ran out of dinnertime conversation.

Now, he might have said “do ducks have a sense of smell?” or “do ducks have noses?” I forget the exact verbal search string but the point got made:  People* don’t know duck about birds.  Alright, alright, there are folks upstate at Cornell Lab of Ornithology and a harmless species called “birder” that inhabit nature centers and the seed aisle at your local hardware store.**  Except for the aforementioned ornithophiles, the modern Western human probably knows more dog science or cat characteristics than anything about most other critters.*** Maybe it’s a kind of mammalian myopia, but people do tend to take birds for granted, no matter how ubiquitous the feathery may be.

Consider, for a moment, the pigeon.  Okay, maybe not.  How about the sparrow, that perky park denizen–cheerful, industrious and frequently misfed?  There must be something useful going on in those cute little heads that allows them to persist so abundantly in diverse ecosystems.  Actually, let’s go back to the pigeon because, in point of fact, the much-maligned rock dove has long been studied for its fearless flying and amazing navigational skills.  They may have bird brains but they’re brainy birds nonetheless.  (They’re even good at math.  “Mama, the pigeon pecked my homework!” “Do your own algebra!”)

Keeping these stellar examples of avian ability in mind, I’ve jotted down some notes on the sensory capabilities of our own ducks:

Hearing—excellent.  Forget ignoring them when you want your coffee and they want their breakfast.

Taste—picky.  Turn their nose up at tougher greens, preferring expensive heads of organic lettuce (when they’ve already devoured your home-grown salad bar).

Touch—deft.  Can gently guide an egg across the pen into a free-form nest and delicately cover it up again.  Awwwww!

Sight—okay, monocular not binocular vision but this is what slower-moving, earthbound animals need to avoid getting eaten by airborne predators.

Smell—not bad, actually.  Oh, you mean, can they smell, not do they smell?  Right.  Have no idea.  (See Tim Birkhead’s book below for further info.)

And then there is what’s probably the most important sense of all– common sense.  In this key indicator of intelligence, our waterfowl really wow.  To wit: They put themselves to bed at night, quack when they need something, navigate capably to food and water, distinguish friend from foe and take shelter as needed.

Hmmm, can they run for public office?



All eyes on us.



*Even people who live with five birds, apparently.
**Hey, those are my peeps!
***OK, ferret fans, hold the calls and letters.  Ditto the tarantula, snake and hamster aficionados—if that’s the correct term of endearment.


Further reading:
“Bird Sense: What It’s Like to Be A Bird”; Tim Birkhead; Walker & Company, NY; 2012.


Copyright 2013, Lori Fontanes