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Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture
(Courtesy NEBRASKAland Magazine/NGPC)

Maybe you've heard that birds can't taste or smell. You might think they can't feel because they walk around barefoot on ice. But birds have the same five senses you have: sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. (Some consider a bird's sense of direction as its sixth sense, but it's really a combination of senses and abilities that enable a bird to find its way so well.)

A bird relies most on its vision to survive. A "bird's eye view" can be downright amazing because of the range and sharpness of birds' vision.

Birds also rely very heavily on their hearing – to communicate, hunt, and avoid predators. Highly developed hearing enables some bird parents and their young ones to locate each other, even in the midst of noisy, crowded colonies full of vocalizing feathered families.

The importance of the other senses varies from species to species.

A bird's sense of touch is concentrated in its un-feathered areas. For example, some birds have the sense of touch in their beaks as well as in their feet. A bird will feel heat, cold, and pain in its feet. But a bird has fewer nerve endings in its feet, so it will be less sensitive to less-than-perfect conditions such as ice.

Taste varies, too, but in general, taste is less well-developed in birds than it is in humans. A parrot has 300 to 400 taste buds, while humans have 9,000. Most birds can perceive sweet, sour, and bitter tastes. A bird that lives on nectar and fruit will prefer sweet tastes, but sweets don't appeal to grain-eaters. A bird that lives on carrion (road kill and other dead things) will enjoy flavors that humans don't even want to imagine. Some butterflies and plants have developed in ways that make them taste bitter to birds that would otherwise eat them. Taste can help a bird avoid eating substances that are toxic to them, such as salt.

For most birds, the sense of smell is their least important sense. Their olfactory lobes (smell-related parts of the brain) tend to be smaller than the brain areas they use for vision. Diurnal birds (birds that go out in the daytime) don't have much of a sense of smell.

But for some birds the ability to smell is of major importance to their survival.

  • The Brown Kiwi has nostrils at the tip of its beak it uses to sniff out buried food.
  • Some ocean birds use smell to help guide them to land.

The Turkey Vulture needs to have a highly developed sense of smell in order to locate food when flying over dense canopies of leaves. Their smelling ability is much better than the average bird. They catch the aroma of a dead, rotting carcass from the sky and know just where their next meal is coming from.


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