Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Sweet Scent of Birds

          Those of you who have visited a heron rookery or who have cleaned a bird cage are probably thinking that I have lost it as you read the above title.  I have engaged in both of those activities, and indeed, birds can be rather stinky at times.  Until last Sunday, I would never have suspected that one might actually be sweet-smelling  when I spent the morning helping out at the Kiawah Island Banding Station (KIBS).

          To learn more about bird-banding and the KIBS site in particular, you can check out these 2 previous posts from Pluff Mud Perspectives, Birding Up Close and Personal -- Bird-Banding 101 -- Part 1 and Part 2.

Aaron Given, wildlife biologist for Kiawah Island, examining the tail feathers of an American Redstart -- October 15, 2011

           I always learn a great deal when I help at KIBS.  My education continued Sunday at the mist nets with Aaron Given, wildlife biologist for the town of Kiawah Island when I learned about some sweet-smelling birds!  I must say, that even though birds occasionally poop on you when you handle them, I myself had never noticed any particularly strong odor -- stinky or sweet.  But apparently, the KIBS team had noticed a sweet, fruity scent with one particular species.  I suppose that when you examine birds' tail feathers so closely to determine molt limits, you may notice when a certain species has a particular odor.  I did not know that at the time, so imagine my surprise when I saw Aaron remove a bird from the net and hold it up to his nose to take in a long draft!  Huh!?  My quizzical look prompted him to explain that he and his team had noted that this particular species gave off this rather sweet smell.   He wanted to know if this individual bird was sweet-smelling like others in its family.  The KIBS team was hoping to figure out what in its diet might be the cause.   This time, as luck would have it, 2 red berries (one half crushed and one whole) were on the ground under the net where Aaron had extracted the bird.  He picked them up and smelled the crushed berry and confirmed that this was the same smell as that emanating from this species.  This bird had been carrying this fruit when it landed in the net.  I also smelled the berry -- yum!  It smelled much like bubblegum!  Now, we had to identify the plant that produced this fruit.  We are sort of smart so we were able to connect the dots and form a hypothesis rather quickly.  The Red-eyed Vireo was the sweet-smelling species in question.

The sweet-smelling Red-eyed Vireo -- KIBS -- October 14, 2013 -- Photo by Aaron Given
The bright red, bean-shaped berries were about the same size, shape and color of Magnolia fruit.  Due to my observations (as reported in this blog post) of this species chowing down on berries from our backyard Magnolia in the fall, we hypothesized that these berries were indeed Magnolia fruit!  All we needed now was to confirm it.  But there are no Magnolias in this shrubby dune line habitat close to KIBS.  The bird must have flown those berries in from across the river.  I told Aaron that I would collect some berries from the Magnolia tree at home and compare the scents.
The Cone of the Southern Magnolia -- Parc Perlière -- October 13, 2013

When I arrived at home, I did just that.  The berries from our Magnolia had the same sweet, fruity bubblegum scent as the berries and the bird from KIBS.  Ta DA!  Thus, our hypothesis was confirmed, the Red-Eyed Vireo was one sweet-smelling bird due to its fall diet of Magnolia "berries!"

Red-Eyed Vireo -- Parc Perlière -- September 8, 2013
            I never know what I am going to experience when at KIBS.  This time, I sniffed the sweet-smelling Red-Eyed Vireo.  Yes, I sniffed the bird, too.  I will say that I am not sure that I would want to know what these birds smell like when they are feeding largely on insects in the Spring.  Yet, it is nice to know that they can be so pleasant-smelling when you handle them for bird-banding in the Fall! 

           I wish to express my heartfelt thanks to Aaron and the team for helping me to learn while at the nets and the bird-banding table and a very special thank you to Claire Stuyck for posing for the illustrative photo below for this blog post!  You rock Claire! 

Claire Stuyck, bird-banding assistant with sweet-smelling Red-Eyed Vireo -- KIBS -- October 14, 2013 -- Photo by Aaron Given


  1. How cool is that!!! wonder if the noisy grackles feeding on my magnolia seeds smell Sweet?!! g

  2. Sweet stuff! Love the post!