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The Secret Perfume of Birds

Uncovering the Science of Avian Scent

Danielle J. Whittaker

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The untold story of a stunning discovery: not only can birds smell, but their scents may be the secret to understanding their world.

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 humor, clear writing, and a compelling narrative to…

The untold story of a stunning discovery: not only can birds smell, but their scents may be the secret to understanding their world.

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 humor, 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 behavior, 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.

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The Secret Perfume of Birds

Danielle J. Whittaker

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Reviews

Reviews

From tangerine-scented auklets to mossy-smelling juncos, birds are more fragrant than you might think.

Whittaker blends science writing and memoir to explore how birds make use of odors in her delightful debut. Whittaker's a natural explainer, and her willingness to poke fun at herself only enhances her fascinating account. Fans of Jon Dunn and Jonathan Meiburg will be charmed.

A delightfully meandering account...Whittaker presents a new lens for bird lovers to view common species, and she had me wondering what some of my favorite birds smell like... The book's greatest success is how it depicts the reality of doing science...It takes a diverse group of perspectives—and the humility to reconsider our biases—to truly understand our world.

Whittaker's wide-ranging book combines memoir, intellectual history, and the results of her own scientific research on avian chemical communication, which challenges the long-held belief in ornithology that birds don't have a sense of smell. Whittaker also discusses her unorthodox academic career and her personal life (including her roller derby alter ego 'Chunk Rock Girl'), adding zest to the science.

Beautifully written.

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About

Book Details

Publication Date
Status
Available
Trim Size
6
x
9
Pages
296
ISBN
9781421443478
Illustration Description
11 b&w photos, 14 b&w illus.
Table of Contents

Preface. Follow Your Nose
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

Preface. Follow Your Nose
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. MHC: Magical Happiness Controller?
Chapter 8. Girl Power
Afterword. A Breath of Fresh Air
Acknowledgments
Glossary
References
Index

Author Bio
Featured Contributor

Danielle J. Whittaker

Danielle J. Whittaker (CORVALLIS, OR) is an evolutionary biologist and the managing director of the Center for Oldest Ice Exploration (COLDEX) at Oregon State University. From gibbons in Indonesia to the dark-eyed juncos of North America, her research focuses on the forces that influence animal behavior, mate selection, and, ultimately, evolution. Whittaker was previously managing director of the...