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The Secret Perfume of Birds (cover)

Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore

Publication Year: 2022

Binding: Hardback

Page Count: 277

ISBN Number: 9781421443478

Price: £ 20.50

The Secret Perfume of Birds: Uncovering the Science of Avian Scent

If you have ever visited a seabird colony, you will most likely have found that they are remarkable places for their ability to stimulate, or even assault, the senses. Visually, the sight of thousands of birds whirling in the air and thronging on the cliffs is always a treat, and the sounds that go with that can be a raucous, deafening orchestra. But often, the memory of seabird colonies that lingers is the smell. It’s a heady mix of guano, fish and death, but with a little something else that escapes description. The best I can do is that they smell ‘birdy’. Some seabirds smell great, such as Storm Petrels, a species that I often wish I could bottle the scent of, and some species smell less than great, as commuters who had the unfortunate luck to be on the same train carriage as me after a Fulmar ringing session will attest. Like many birders though, I had long been under the assumption that most birds don’t have much of a sense of smell, even if they themselves do have a smell. Dr Danielle Whittaker’s new book detailing her studies has thoroughly debunked those assumptions!

This book is partly a memoir and partly an exercise in science communication. Dr Whittaker has had a fascinating career, starting out as an “indoorsy” undergraduate before making the leap to primatology, then coming to challenge the generally accepted notion that birds do not have a sense of smell, all in an entertaining and self-deprecating way. It was a reminder that the path to a career in science is rarely straightforward (and the nor is the life of partners of field scientists, as Dr Whittaker’s malaria-suffering partner frequently reminds her). Throughout the book, she uses her study species, the Dark-eyed Junco, as an example of a bird that uses scent to identify individuals, communicate breeding condition and locate nest sites, but references the work of many other scientists working on a wide range of species, from seabirds such as the tangerine-scented Crested Auklet, to the incredible carcass detection abilities of Turkey Vultures.

Something that I found quite jarring throughout the book was the unapologetic reference to studies that were invasive, whether it be taking birds from the wild, or descriptions of scientific experiments with questionable ethics. Some readers may be taken aback at the lengths scientists will go to answer their questions, so perhaps the book should come with more of a warning to those not familiar with some methods of testing on animals. Science can often involve unsavory acts, and differences in ethical practices between Britain and the US were clearly on show.

However, there is a lot to love about this book. It is full of vivid descriptions of fieldwork adventures, fun facts about bird scents, detailed scientific explanations that always stay very readable, even to a non-scientific audience, and a Terry Pratchett-like love of footnotes. One of the things I loved about this book, was the way in which the author showcases women in science, culminating in a section in the final chapter devoted to women who have conducted research in the field of avian scent.

Overall, this book is a charming and readable background to a little-studied area of ornithology, and gives an added dimension of smell to an appreciation of bird behaviour.  

Book reviewed by Anthony Wetherhill

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