Journal of Comparative Physiology A

, Volume 196, Issue 10, pp 751–766 | Cite as

Pheromones in birds: myth or reality?

  • Samuel P. Caro
  • Jacques BalthazartEmail author


Birds are anosmic or at best microsmatic… This misbelief persisted until very recently and has strongly influenced the outcome of communication studies in birds, with olfaction remaining neglected as compared to acoustic and visual channels. However, there is now clear empirical evidence showing that olfaction is perfectly functional in birds and birds use olfactory information in a variety of ethological contexts. Although the existence of pheromones has never been formally demonstrated in this vertebrate class, different groups of birds, such as petrels, auklets and ducks have been shown to produce specific scents that could play a significant role in within-species social interactions. Behavioral experiments have indeed demonstrated that these odors influence the behavior of conspecifics. Additionally, in quail, deprivation of olfactory inputs decreases neuronal activation induced by sexual interactions with a female. It seems therefore well established that birds enjoy a functional sense of smell and a fast growing body of experimental evidence suggests that they use this channel of olfactory communication to control their social life. The unequivocal identification of an avian pheromone is, however, still ahead of us but there are now many exciting opportunities to unravel the behavioral and physiological particularities of chemical communication in birds.


Avian olfaction Sex recognition Self-odor Kin recognition Immediate early gene 



Amyl acetate


Bed nucleus of the stria terminalis, medial part


Dimethyl sulfide


Ethyl acrylate


Major histocompatibility complex


Olfactory receptors


Preoptic area



We thank Caroline Nieberding, Francesco Bonadonna, Julie Hagelin and one anonymous reviewer for helpful comments on a previous version of this manuscript. Preparation of this review and the experimental work from the J.B. laboratory that is described were supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health (R01 NIH/MH50388) and the Belgian FRFC2.4537.09 to J.B. S.P.C. received a Léon Speeckaert Fund postdoctoral fellowship from the King Baudouin Foundation and the Belgian American Educational Foundation (BAEF).


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© Springer-Verlag 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of BiologyUniversity of North CarolinaChapel HillUSA
  2. 2.Netherlands Institute of EcologyCentre for Terrestrial EcologyHeterenThe Netherlands
  3. 3.GIGA NeurosciencesUniversity of LiègeLiège 1Belgium

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