ALD23 Books: The Secret Perfume of Birds: Uncovering the Science of Avian Scent, Danielle J. Whittaker

The Secret Perfume of Birds: Uncovering the Science of Avian Scent, Danielle J. Whittaker

Evolutionary science has defined the history of biology, providing the foundation for modern biology and opening the doors to novel types of research. It has played a crucial role in our understanding of how birds have evolved throughout history, debunking myths and helping scientific research progress beyond theory – enhancing our understanding of birds’ origins, adaptations, and behaviours. 

Avian scent has been a long-standing subject of misunderstanding in the scientific world; the myth of birds not having a sense of smell has caused great confusion in our understanding of how birds live and of their world as we know it. Many scientists had questions: 

  • How do birds communicate?
  • How is their behaviour influenced?
  • How do they pick a mate?
  • How do they choose where to build their nests?

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. 

The Secret Perfume of Birds is the untold story of a stunning discovery: not only can birds smell, but their scents may be the secret to understanding their world. It explores the twisting roads of scientific research, detailing the many trials and tribulations that can occur along the way. Drawing on her extensive expertise in ornithology and scent science, Whittaker delves into the evolution, biology, and behaviour of birds, showcasing how scent plays a crucial role in their lives, from communication and navigation to foraging and mate selection. Through engaging narratives and vivid anecdotes, she introduces readers to a diverse array of bird species, from the enchanting albatrosses of remote islands to the charismatic hummingbirds of lush tropical forests.

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About the Author

Danielle J Whittaker 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 behaviour, mate selection, and evolution. Whittaker was previously managing director of the BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action at Michigan State University. 

She is intrigued by the unseen external forces that influence our behaviour, mate choice, and, ultimately, evolutionary trajectories. Her research focuses on the interaction between the microbiome and animal behaviour, and the resulting impact on evolutionary dynamics. She has specifically studied chemical communication in a songbird called the dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis), plus the uropygial-gland microbiome’s role in the production and evolution of chemical signals present in preen oil, as well as the effects of social behaviour on these symbiotic microbes.

You can follow Danielle Whittaker’s work here:

Twitter: @juncostink
Website: Danielle J Whittaker Bird Research ( 

With thanks to Synergy for their support.

Posted in Ada Lovelace Day 2023.