The Secret Perfume Of Birds, Reviewed By The Inquisitive Biologist

The Inquisitive Biologist recently came to our attention with a book review, and now another review of a book on a topic that is new (to us):

To successfully navigate their world, organisms rely on numerous senses. Birds are no exception to this; and yet, for a long time, people have been convinced that birds cannot smell. This came as a surprise to evolutionary biologist Danielle J. Whittaker. Given that smell is effectively chemoreception (the sensing of chemical gradients in your environment) and was one of the first senses to evolve, why would birds have no use for it? The Secret Perfume of Birds tells the story of 15 years spent investigating the olfactory capabilities of birds and provides an insider’s account of scientific research.

The thing about The Secret Perfume of Birds, and something that might test the patience of some readers, is this: it is effectively a research memoir. Rather than a textbook-style review of what we know about bird smell, Whittaker takes you chronologically through her research, not sparing the reader from the dead ends and sometimes confusing results that come out of biological fieldwork. But, before delving in, she first sets the stage with some history and some information on her study system.

Whittaker traces the notion of avian anosmia (i.e. the absence of smell) to that famed US naturalist Audubon. In 1826, he published his results on experiments with what he thought were turkey vultures who proved unable to locate rotting prey. Already in 1837, Charles Waterton criticized him by pointing out that he had actually used black vultures that rely on eyesight to find prey. Never mind. The myth took hold in both the scientific and popular imagination and has stayed firmly lodged there until very recently, despite pioneering research in the 1960s by e.g. biologists Bernice Wenzel and Larry Hutchison, and medical illustrator Betsy Bang. Whittaker came to this topic in 2007 when she joined the research group of bird biologist Ellen Ketterson and started working on the dark-eyed junco. This small and unobtrusive New World sparrow is widespread in North America—just one more Little Brown Job on a birdwatcher’s checklist—but that makes them an ideal model species. “Have you ever tried to catch a bald eagle?” (p. 28), she quips when asked why she does not study something more exciting such as birds of prey…

Read the whole review here.

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