The puzzling lack of evidence for the peculiar but widespread belief that birds have no sense of smell irked evolutionary biologist Danielle Whittaker. Exploring the science behind the myth led her on an unexpected quest investigating mysteries from how juncos win a fight to why cowbirds smell like cookies. In The Secret Perfume of Birds – part science, part intellectual history, and part memoir – Whittaker blends humour, clear writing, and a compelling narrative to describe how scent is important not just for birds but for all animals, including humans.
Whittaker engagingly describes how emerging research has uncovered birds' ability to produce complex chemical signals that influence their behaviour, including where they build nests when they pick a fight, and why they fly away. Mate choice, or sexual selection – a still enigmatic aspect of many animals' lives – appears to be particularly influenced by smell. Whittaker's pioneering studies suggest that birds' sexy (and scary) signals are produced by symbiotic bacteria that manufacture scents in the oil that birds stroke on their feathers when preening. From tangerine-scented auklets to her beloved juncos, redolent of moss, birds from across the world feature in Whittaker's stories, but she also examines the smelly chemicals of all kinds of creatures, from iguanas and bees to monkeys and humans.
Readers will enjoy a rare opportunity to witness the twisting roads scientific research can take, especially the challenging, hilarious, and occasionally dangerous realities of ornithology in the wild. The Secret Perfume of Birds will interest anyone looking to learn more about birds, about how animals and humans use our senses, and about why it can sometimes take a rebel scientist to change what we think we know for sure about the world – and ourselves.
Chapter 1. The Most Ancient and Fundamental Sense
Chapter 2. Following the Bird's Nose
Chapter 3. Deciphering the Secrets of Smells
Chapter 4. What Does Sexy Smell Like?
Chapter 5. Making Scents of Bacteria
Chapter 6. Thanks for Sharing
Chapter 7. Major Histocompatibility Complex, or Magical Happiness Controller?
Chapter 8. Girl Power
Afterword: A Breath of Fresh Air
Danielle J. Whittaker (Lansing, Michigan) is the managing director of the BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action at Michigan State University, where she is an instructor and the graduate program director in the Department of Integrative Biology.
"Covering a topic even expert birders would find intriguing, The Secret Perfume of Birds explores new territory related to neuroscience in an accessible yet scholarly way. Whittaker's writing style will be compelling to anyone who enjoys learning more about natural history. This fascinating book will make a great addition to current popular nonfiction literature."
– Laurie Spry, New England naturalist, birder, and educator
"This fun and fascinating book dispels the myth that birds can't smell, a topic largely overlooked since the time of Audubon. Whittaker uses her own unusual backstory to lead us through many interwoven layers that comprise the field (and lab) experience of bird olfaction, mate choice, and social behavior. She cleverly introduces us to bird scent at multiple levels of biological complexity (microbes to immune function to behavior) and provides comparisons across taxa, including humans. The Secret Perfume of Birds enables readers, for the first time, to master an understanding of how scents feature in the lives of birds while sharing with us the 'wow factor' that scientists experience when they discover how nature actually works!"
– Julie C. Hagelin, University of Alaska