Can Birds Smell? Here Are 6 Birds That Can Smell Food

Kiwi bird photo

Yes, birds can smell. Kiwis, vultures, albatrosses, petrels, shearwaters, and homing pigeons have a keen sense of smell to locate food.

Birds are often celebrated for their vibrant plumage and melodious songs, but their sense of smell usually flies under the radar. Contrary to popular belief, several bird species boast an impressive olfactory ability, playing a crucial role in their survival and behavior.

From the Kiwi, which forages at night using its sense of smell to find insects and worms, to the Turkey Vulture, famous for detecting carrion by scent over vast distances, these avian species debunk the myth that birds rely solely on vision and hearing.

The Science Of Bird Smell

Many people think birds can’t smell. But, some birds have a great sense of smell. They use it to find food. This is part of the science of bird smell. Let’s dive into how birds can smell and which ones are really good at it.

How Birds Sense Smell

Birds smell through their nostrils, just like us. But, not all birds are the same. Some birds have a stronger sense of smell. They can find food from far away. Here’s how they do it:

  • Birds have nostrils at the top of their beaks.
  • Air goes in when they breathe.
  • Smell cells in the nostrils catch smells from the air.
  • These smells tell the bird where food might be.

Some birds, like the Kiwi, use smell to find worms in the ground. Others, like Albatrosses, smell fish oils over the ocean. This shows us that birds can use their sense of smell in different ways.

The Olfactory Bulb In Birds

The olfactory bulb is a key part of how birds smell. It is a part of their brain. This part processes smells. Not all birds have the same size olfactory bulb. The size can tell us how good a bird is at smelling. Here’s a simple way to understand it:

Bird TypeSize of Olfactory BulbSmell Ability
KiwiLargeVery good
AlbatrossLargeVery good
PigeonSmallNot so good

Birds with larger olfactory bulbs can smell better. They can find food easier. This is important for their survival. Birds like Kiwis and Albatrosses depend on their smell to live. So, the olfactory bulb plays a big role in the life of birds.

Birds That Rely On Smell For Finding Food

Many people wonder, can birds smell? The answer is a resounding yes! While not all birds have a strong sense of smell, some species rely heavily on this sense to find food. These birds have adapted over time to use their olfactory abilities for foraging, hunting, and even social interactions. Let’s explore six fascinating birds that utilize their keen sense of smell to locate their next meal.

Turkey Vulture

The Turkey Vulture is notorious for its acute sense of smell, which it uses to locate carrion from miles away. These birds can detect the faintest odors of ethyl mercaptan, a gas produced by decaying animals. Here’s how they do it:

  • Soaring High: Turkey Vultures ride thermal currents, which allows them to conserve energy while searching vast areas for food.
  • Nasal Sensors: Their large nostrils and olfactory system are highly specialized for detecting scents in the air.

These abilities make them nature’s cleanup crew, preventing the spread of disease by consuming dead animals.

Turkey Vulture photo


Kiwis are unique, nocturnal birds with a highly developed sense of smell. They are one of the few birds with nostrils at the tip of their beak. This adaptation helps them find insects and worms in the dark forest floors of New Zealand. Key facts include:

  • Beak Sensors: Their beak’s sensory pits detect prey underground.
  • Earthbound Life: As flightless birds, Kiwis forage on the ground, where smell is vital for locating food hidden beneath the leaf litter.


The Albatross is a seabird that roams the vast oceans, often flying for hours to find food. These birds use their sense of smell to pick up the scent of krill and fish oils on the water’s surface. Albatrosses’ remarkable olfactory glands enable them to detect potential food sources from great distances, guiding them to successful foraging spots.


The Kakapo, also known as the “night parrot,” is another flightless bird that relies on its sense of smell for survival. Native to New Zealand, Kakapos are critically endangered. They use their keen noses to sniff out fruits and seeds at night. Their olfactory-driven foraging strategy is essential in the dense forests they inhabit.

African Marabou Stork

The African Marabou Stork is a scavenger with a penchant for sniffing out carrion. They often follow vultures to find food but are also capable of detecting the smell of dead animals on their own. With their bald heads and massive bills, they are well-adapted to their role as nature’s garbage collectors.

American Crow

Although not as well known for their sense of smell, American Crows have shown the ability to use their olfactory senses to find food. They are opportunistic feeders that will eat a wide variety of foods, which they sometimes locate by smell. Crows are intelligent birds, capable of creating and using tools, which may complement their foraging techniques.

How Birds Use Smell To Locate Food

Many people wonder, Can birds smell? It’s a common belief that birds rely on their keen eyesight and hearing, but smell is also a key sense for many species. In fact, some birds have a highly developed sense of smell, which they use to locate food. From soaring high above to foraging on the ground, birds can detect a variety of scents that lead them to their next meal.

Locating Carcasses

The ability to find food is crucial for survival, and certain birds are experts at locating carcasses by smell. Take the Turkey Vulture, for example, whose keen sense of smell allows it to detect the faint odor of decay from miles away. This bird’s olfactory prowess is so refined, it can distinguish between the scent of fresh carrion and the less appetizing smell of an older carcass. Here’s how some birds use their sense of smell to find carrion:

  • Flight patterns: Birds like vultures circle above the ground, using air currents to carry scents upward.
  • Scent differentiation: They can identify specific stages of decomposition, helping them find the freshest food sources.
  • Social cues: Some species observe the behavior of other scavengers to home in on potential food.

These abilities demonstrate the importance of smell in locating food sources that are not always visible.

Finding Fruits And Nectar

Fruit-eating birds, such as certain parrot species, rely on their sense of smell to find ripe fruits and nectar. The smell of sweet, ripe fruit can attract birds from afar, guiding them to trees and plants. Birds like the Kea, a New Zealand parrot, use their sense of smell to distinguish between ripe and unripe fruits, ensuring they get the most nutritious and energy-rich diet. Here’s how smell guides them:

  • Olfactory foraging: Birds sniff out the aroma of ripe fruits, leading them to food sources hidden by foliage.
  • Memory: They remember the scent of specific fruits and return to those plants when the fruit is in season.
  • Seasonal cues: The changing scents of the forest can signal to birds when certain fruits are ready to be eaten.

This olfactory-based foraging strategy is essential for birds that feed on fruits and nectar.

Detecting Prey

Predatory birds, such as owls and hawks, may also use their sense of smell to detect prey. While vision and hearing are their primary hunting tools, smell can provide additional information. For instance, the Barn Owl has been observed using smell to locate mice and other rodents hidden under thick vegetation or snow. Here are some ways birds of prey use smell:

  • Tracking hidden prey: The smell helps locate prey that is not visible or audible.
  • Environmental clues: Smells from the prey’s habitat can lead birds to hunting grounds.
  • Night hunting: Nocturnal birds like owls might use smell to compensate for reduced visibility.

This multi-sensory approach allows birds to be effective hunters in a variety of environments.

Kiwi bird photo 1

The Benefits And Limitations Of Bird Smell

Many people wonder about birds and their sense of smell. Birds use smell in ways that are both impressive and surprising. The ability to detect odors plays a crucial role in the survival of some bird species. It helps them find food, navigate, and even choose mates. Yet, not all birds have a strong sense of smell. This sense varies widely among different species, with some birds having a keen olfactory ability and others not so much. Let’s explore the benefits and limitations of bird smell, focusing on six birds that can detect scents well.

Advantages Of Smell For Birds

Birds with a developed sense of smell enjoy several benefits:

  • Locating Food: Birds like the Turkey Vulture use their smell to find carrion over long distances.
  • Navigating: Homing pigeons may rely on scents to map out their flight paths.
  • Mating: Some species can smell potential mates, a trait vital for reproduction.
  • Avoiding Danger: Smell helps birds detect predators or harmful environments.

These advantages are crucial for survival. For example, the Kiwi bird, with its highly sensitive nostrils at the end of its beak, can sniff out insects and worms hidden underground. The table below shows how different birds use their sense of smell:

Bird SpeciesSmell Function
Turkey VultureScavenging for Carrion
KiwiHunting for Buried Prey
AlbatrossLocating Fish on Ocean Surface

Constraints On Bird Smell

Despite the advantages, there are constraints on bird smell:

  • Less Developed in Some: Many birds have a poor sense of smell and rely more on vision.
  • Environmental Factors: Wind direction and strength can affect how well birds smell.
  • Genetic Limits: Smell receptors vary, with some birds having fewer, limiting their ability.

For instance, the high-flying Peregrine Falcon has less use for smell, as its hunting technique relies on sight and speed. Similarly, environmental factors may hinder a bird’s ability to detect scents, making it hard for them to find food or avoid danger. Birds like the common city pigeon might not need a strong sense of smell, as food is often visible and plentiful. Here’s how some limitations impact birds:

Bird SpeciesLimitation
Peregrine FalconHigh Altitude Hunting
City PigeonAbundant Visible Food
PeacockReliance on Vision for Display

Bird Smell Vs. Human Smell

The question of whether birds can smell has puzzled many, but recent studies reveal fascinating insights. While humans rely heavily on their sense of smell for various tasks, birds were long thought to have a limited olfactory capacity. This belief is changing, as research shows that some birds have a keen sense of smell. They use it to locate food, navigate, and even find a mate. The comparison between bird smell and human smell offers an intriguing look into how different species interact with their environment. Let’s discover six birds that boast an impressive olfactory prowess.

The Science Of Bird Smell

Birds process smells using their olfactory receptors located in the upper part of their beaks. Unlike humans who have around six million olfactory receptors, birds have fewer. However, their smelling ability is tailored to their specific needs. For instance, the kiwi bird, with its long beak, hosts many receptors, allowing it to sniff out insects and worms underground.

Comparative Anatomy: Beaks And Noses

The anatomy of bird beaks and human noses differs greatly. Birds lack the nose structure that mammals have. Instead, they have nares—nostrils at the base of their beaks. This structure is essential for their unique smelling capabilities. Some species have evolved to have larger olfactory cavities, enhancing their ability to detect scents.

Birds That Can Smell Food

  • Kiwi: Uses its highly developed sense of smell to forage at night.
  • Albatross: Smells prey from several kilometers away over the ocean.
  • Vulture: Detects carrion by its scent, often from great altitudes.
  • European Starling: Finds fruits and insects through its sense of smell.
  • Pigeon: Utilizes smell to locate food and navigate home.
  • Homing Pigeon: Known for its incredible ability to return to its nest using scent cues.

Olfactory Experiments On Birds

Experiments have shown that birds rely on their sense of smell for various tasks. For example, seabirds have been observed following scent trails to find fish. This showcases their sophisticated use of smell for survival.

Human Smell Vs. Bird Smell: A Sensory Comparison

Humans have a broad range of smell, detecting thousands of different odors. Birds, on the other hand, may have a narrower spectrum but can detect some scents that humans cannot. This specialization allows them to thrive in their ecological niches.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can All Birds Detect Smells?

Not all birds have a strong sense of smell. Many birds rely more on vision and hearing. However, some species, like vultures and kiwis, have developed a keen sense of smell to locate food.

Which Birds Are Known For Their Smelling Ability?

Certain birds are renowned for their sense of smell, including Turkey Vultures, Kiwis, Albatrosses, Petrels, and some species of Pigeons. They utilize this sense to find food, often from great distances.

How Do Birds Use Smell To Find Food?

Birds with a developed sense of smell can detect food-related odors from far away. For example, vultures can smell carrion, while seabirds can smell fish oils. This ability guides them directly to food sources.

Do Birds Smell Better Than Humans?

Some birds, like vultures and kiwis, have a more developed sense of smell than humans, allowing them to detect food from miles away. However, in general, birds’ olfactory abilities vary widely across species.


Dispelling the myth that birds lack olfactory prowess, we’ve explored how certain species use scent to survive. The kiwi, turkey vulture, albatross, and others rely on this sense for foraging. Understanding avian olfaction not only fascinates but also enriches our knowledge of these winged wonders.

Embrace the diversity of bird abilities and consider how scent plays a role in the avian world.

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