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HomeZoology BlogsUncovering the Science of Avian Scent–A E book Evaluation – 10,000 Birds

Uncovering the Science of Avian Scent–A E book Evaluation – 10,000 Birds

Do Brown-headed Cowbirds actually odor like freshly baked sugar cookies? Do Darkish-eyed Juncos actually odor like leaves and filth or “ferns and Celestial Seasonings’ Nation Peach Ardour Tea? Do birds use odors and a way of odor to speak with one another?  The Secret Fragrance of Birds: Uncovering the Science of Avian Scent focuses on this final query, however you would possibly end up fascinated by the primary two, which come early within the ebook however linger on within the creativeness as creator Danielle J. Whittaker’s adventures in olfactory analysis take surprising turns into genetics, chemistry, and the halls of academia. I’ve by no means even thought to odor a fowl, and I don’t know if I’ll ever get shut sufficient to a wild fowl to take action (additionally, I’ve a awful sense of odor, so I most likely wouldn’t odor a lot), but it surely’s enjoyable to consider it after I go birding. What do American Avocets odor like? 

I’ve additionally by no means questioned whether or not birds carry a definite odor and whether or not they can distinguish amongst different creatures’ odors. However Danielle Whittaker has. In The Secret Fragrance of Birds: Uncovering the Science of Avian Scent she describes how she got here to avian olfactory analysis by an curiosity in researching mate selection of birds and had an concept that odor is likely to be concerned. Whittaker had not but gotten the message that birds don’t odor, her mental background was in primate analysis, however a colleague set her straight,  telling her, “Birds don’t have a way of odor, so I don’t perceive why you’d research that anyway?” (p. 1). It’s a fantastic opening to the ebook, establishing the 2 themes–the analysis itself and Whittaker’s private wrestle to determine a tutorial scientific profession exterior the same old, anticipated path of tenure monitor and conventional mental boundaries. Written with humor, curiosity, and a number of heat, The Secret Fragrance of Birds is an unexpectedly good learn. Difficult at occasions, particularly for us nonscientists, however Whittaker very neatly combines explanations of scientific ideas and processes along with her personal ideas and emotions concerning the work, the mental historical past that preceded it, and the folks she works with. There’s additionally curler derby stuff

Going again to that assumption that birds don’t have a way of odor, it may be traced to John James Audubon (in fact), who carried out a number of experiments with Turkey Vultures and concluded that the vultures used sight, not scent, to search out meals. Audubon’s methodology has since been roundly critiqued (and it’s additionally suspected that he experimented with Black Vultures, not Turkey Vultures) and we now know that Turkey Vultures have a superior sense of odor. Additionally tubenoses and Kiwis can odor very nicely. Really, many birds are ready to make use of odor; the 2006 version of the traditional textbook Ornithology states, “Though they’ve been underestimated prior to now, the olfactory talents of most birds are corresponding to these of some mammals (Mason and Clark 2000). Birds use the sense of odor in a wide range of actions starting from discovering meals to orientation….The small measurement of the olfactory bulbs in most birds (relative to mind measurement) fostered the idea that just a few distinctive birds—these with giant olfactory bulbs, specifically, vultures, kiwis, and petrels—use the sense of odor.” * However, the parable continued. Whitaker was advised that birds don’t odor by a  in 2008. 

Whittaker began asking questions past “do birds have a way of odor?” akin to “how do birds odor? (some, apparently, like sugar cookies), and “how do they convey data by their odors?” And she or he began taking a look at and analyzing preen oil. You understand preen oil, it’s the oleaginous substance birds secrete to coat their feathers and hold them neat and freed from parasites. It additionally, it seems, accommodates ‘unstable compounds’ (“small chemical compounds that tend to vaporize at room temperature”, p. 241) that contribute to a fowl’s odor. Certainly one of Whittaker’s first experiments was to put different birds’ preen oil on the nests and eggs of Darkish-eyed Juncos. The Juncos reacted to alien scents, even briefly lowering the time spent on the nest. She additionally discovered different analysis on birds and odor, significantly the pioneering work of Bernice Wenzel, the medical illustrations of Betsy Bang, Gabrielle Nevitt work with seabirds, and extra lately, the Crested Auklet research of Julie Hagelin and the genetic olfactory analysis of Silke Steiger in Germany. It’s not clear why so many researchers on this subject are ladies (there are various extra presently doing analysis in avian chemical ecology and Whittaker estimates that the gender divide within the subject is about 50-50), however it might be one purpose why the parable that birds don’t odor has not been knocked off its pedestal till now. It’s taken a crucial mass of girls scientists to be heard and to be revered. Whittaker muses about adjustments within the standing of girls in science and the necessity for extra change (as in biases in analysis) in certainly one of her closing chapters, “Lady Energy,” and it’s certainly one of my favourite chapters within the ebook. 

Creator Danielle Whittaker, © Nicole Cottam

Whittaker’s analysis highway is extra serpentine than most teachers. Her doctorate is in organic anthropology, her doctorate on the evolutionary genetics of Kloss’s Gibbons; she involves birds by way of a want for one thing totally different and her postdoc job as supervisor of the Ketterson Laboratory (the laboratory of Dr. Ellen Ketterson–sure, one other lady scientist) at Indiana College, a lab identified for its long-term analysis on Darkish-eyed Juncos. At each juncture she must be taught ideas and procedures in completely new fields–fowl anatomy, fowl evolution, genetics, chemistry! (Did you understand how a lot chemistry is concerned in olfactory analysis? Effectively, I assume that is sensible when you concentrate on it, smells are made up of natural compounds.) Whittaker’s expertise is in permitting us to be taught along with her. She writes about science with readability and humor, setting forth analysis as a sequence of questions that begets extra questions and brings rewards within the richness of numerous collaborations and mental challenges, generally within the subject, generally within the laboratory.

Her profession path selections are nearly startling of their honesty; that is an space that’s seldom, not less than to my data, written about formally, past Twitter threads and the occasional Chronicle of Increased Training article. Her a number of rejections from tenure-track positions and the blended messages she will get from the few departments that invite her for interviews will resonate with most any educational job seeker (although I have to say that as a former educational librarian I didn’t see “distress” throughout me, simply often). Whittaker has creatively carved out “alternate” profession path, managing scientific communities–first the Ketterson Lab, now science facilities–using an apparent expertise for administration. About halfway by way of The Secret Fragrance of Birds she enthusiastically describes taking up the problem of changing into managing director of the BEACON Middle for the Research of Evolution in Motion at Michigan State College, a Science and Know-how Middle funded by the Nationwide Science Basis. Whittaker continued her analysis at BEACON, working with evolutionary biologist Kevin Theis on the groundbreaking concept that the odorous compounds in preen oil are produced by micro organism within the uropygial gland, and in addition attempting to do some gene sequencing in an unsuccessful effort to grasp the function, if any, performed by MHC, the Main Histocompatibility Complicated (MHC). I used to be startled to search out out just a few days in the past that she is now managing director of COLDEX, the Middle for Oldest Ice Exploration at Oregon State College, one other NSF Science and Know-how Middle. Definitely a wierd selection for an evolutionary biologist. Or is it? Danielle Whittaker’s The Secret Fragrance of Birds is basically concerning the triumph of unconventional selections and the data gained from inventive, out-of-the-box considering. I’m wanting ahead to her subsequent ebook, the place I hope she one way or the other combines Antarctic exploration with avian olfactory conduct. With just a little little bit of ice journey thrown in for enjoyable. 

Some further ideas:

  • To assist us non-scientists, the ebook features a 9-page Glossary of phrases like “Allele,” “Main Histocompatibility Complicated (MHC),”and the all-important “uropygial gland.” Phrases within the textual content are italicized to point they’re within the Glossary and the definitions are in plain language. That is an especially useful support. Although most of those phrases, perhaps all, are additionally defined throughout the textual content, I discovered myself wanting them up within the again the following time they have been used. 
  • There isn’t any bibliography, a References part lists articles by chapter, within the order during which they’re mentioned within the textual content. I admire the truth that there are references (some well-liked science books don’t trouble) and I perceive why JHU won’t wish to insert the various numbers that may be vital for orderly citations, however it isn’t straightforward to  discover an article. A bibliography could be rather more environment friendly. 
  • Hooray, an index! I’ve my quibbles (Brown-headed Cowbird needs to be below ‘Cowbird, Brown-headed,’ not ‘Brown-headed Cowbird’) but it surely’s fairly good, indexing names, birds, animals, and scientific subjects. 
  • I really like the quilt design by Amanda Weiss, that includes two Eurasian Hoopoes, feminine and male, taken from John Gould’s The Birds of Nice Britain (1862-1873). Additionally it is a bit deceptive. Hoopoes do come up within the chapter on micro organism–Whittaker cites a sequence of “vital” analysis research out of Spain that she and co-investigator Kevin Theis discover insightful and galvanizing. However the true avian star of the ebook is the Darkish-eyed Junco, the topic Whittaker makes use of in lots of her analysis initiatives, the almost-victims of bear predation within the dramatic “bear within the aviary” story in chapter 3, the fowl whose uropygial gland adorns chapter 2, the one illustration of this key anatomical half that’s the supply of birds’ odor. Why not a ebook cowl that includes Darkish-eyed Juncos? Not as “horny” as Hoopoes, maybe, however quietly lovely (particularly the Purple-back subspecies) and actually what Whittaker’s analysis is all about. 

Hoopoes by John Gould, The Birds of Nice Britain,


* Gill, Frank B. & W. H. Freeman, Ornithology, third version, W.H. Freeman, 2006, full textual content obtainable on Web Archives,

The Secret Fragrance of Birds: Uncovering the Science of Avian Scent by Danielle J. Whittaker

Johns Hopkins College Press, 2022, 296 pages

ISBN-10 ? : ? 1421443473; ISBN-13 ? : ? 978-1421443478

$27.95, hardcover; obtainable additionally in book, Kindle, and audiobook codecs.



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