“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?
*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.
“Bird Sense: What It’s Like to Be A Bird”; Tim Birkhead; Walker & Company, NY; 2012.
Copyright 2013, Lori Fontanes
Excellent post! I have come to the conclusion that most species of birds have an excellent sense of smell. Scientist now know that vultures seem to appear out of nowhere because of the vulture’s keen sense of smell, when for decades, it was thought that vultures located food by sight.
Thx!!! Appreciate that! Re: sense of smell. I think Birkhead basically says that birds have been underrated in this area– he gives examples of several species–but since I have not personally witnessed anything (yet) that specifically shows off that sensory ability, I offered Humor instead. 🙂
I guess I always thought that those spaces on their bills were the way they breathe and smell.
And they are rather large openings, actually. From what I’ve read, apparently the sense of smell varies from species to species. In humans, I believe it even varies with age and gender. Thx for joining the discussion!
So my husband came home after reading this entry & repeated his question: Can ducks smell? (He’s right; I hedged an answer.) My best guess is yes but it’s probably not their strongest sense–sight, taste and hearing being quite powerful and what they evidently need most to survive in their usual habitat(s). Some evening when we’re not spring cleaning/planting/weeding/harvesting/prepping for hurricanes, I will try to sit down and watch that PBS doc– “An Original Duckumentary” (!)– and see if they address this question.
I’ll vote for your ducks!
Thank you so much! 🙂
In my opinion ducks have a sense of smell
And taste.I do observe my duck.
Yes, I wrote that story a while back & agree!
I read a book about ravens by Bernd Heinrich that discussed his experiments to determine whether ravens had a sense of smell. He concluded that they did not. I don’t know whether all birds are the same in that respect, but I have also heard that parrots don’t have a sense of smell. So, maybe ducks don’t have a sense of smell, eihter!
You know, I read that book years a few years back. I love all the birds in the corvid family! But I have seen more recent reports that indicate that some birds do indeed have some olfactory sense (some more than others). I thought about it again just this week when the ducks refused to leave their pen even though I couldn’t see or hear anything that could be bothering them. Later that day, two of my neighbors said that they saw a coyote on our street. Could the ducks have smelled coyote? We may never know…!
Interesting! I know some parrot parents that think that their birds can smell things, but I’m not sure. Some board graduate students should do their thesis(es) in this area!