Matt: I was contemplating my parakeet the other day at the same time my wife was cooking something very aromatic. And it occurred to me, can birds smell? I've never seen Woody sniff his dish of seeds or hold his nose when I open a cat food can, but other animals can smell things, and he has little holes in his beak, so...? — Woody’s Owner, North Park
An especially peculiar question. Just my style. It does make you wonder what Woody’s little nose holes are for if, in fact, he can’t smell cooked cabbage or cigars. I can’t answer with certainty for parakeets, but it’s been shown in laboratory studies that most birds’ olfactory nerves are stimulated by odors. So you might say that technically, they do “smell” things. But it’s an unusual bird that reacts to an odor. In the grand scheme of things, a bird’s senses of smell and taste are relatively unimportant in preserving its life or reproducing its species. Pelicans’ nostrils are completely covered, and their olfactory structures are almost nonexistent, so it would appear that a sense of smell serves virtually no purpose for that species.
But at the other end of the spectrum is the kiwi, the flightless New Zealand bird best known to Americans as the strange, lumpy animal on the shoe polish cans. As far as ornithologists know, the kiwi has the best-developed sense of smell of any bird. It’s a nocturnal feeder that spends its humble life scuffling through piles of leaves and debris in the dark, searching for earthworms. A kiwi’s nostrils are at the tip of its beak (unlike any other bird), and it actually sniffs its way along the ground as it feeds.
Vultures are the second best smellers after kiwis. They’re carrion eaters, and you can imagine that a good nose would help them locate their odoriferous dinners. Scientists seem to think they use smell to get a general sense of where their prospective meal is located, then depend on eyesight to zero in on the carcass. Certain sea birds use smell to locate their nests. And homing pigeons also use smell to orient themselves to where they are, relative to where they want to go. (This was tested by stuffing the pigeons’ nose holes with cotton and then releasing them. All the scientists ended up with was a bunch of very uncomfortable, very confused birds.)
About the only others that use their noses are the African honeyguides. As the name implies, they feed on honey right out of the hive, and one way they find the hive is by smelling the beeswax, not just by hearing or seeing the bees. A honeyguide will just as soon follow its nose to a burning beeswax candle.
A few more patented Matthew Alice facts will give you an idea of how taste probably isn’t a big deal to Woody either. The average chicken has 24 taste buds in its mouth. Woody’s relatives, the parrot family, have about 350. Compare that to man with 9000, rabbits with 17,000, and catfish with (for some unimaginable reason) 100,000. Don’t bother adding gravy to Woody’s dinner. He just won’t care.