The Secret Perfume of Birds

Danielle J. Whittaker, The Secret Perfume of Birds: Uncovering the Science of Avian Scent (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2022).

The Secret Perfume of Birds simultaneously shows how and why American universities need to rapidly and radically reform their goals and pedagogy, offers a compelling case for fearless intellectual curiosity and a willingness to change paths as the key to fresh insights and discoveries, and entices non-science readers inside and out of academia into an appreciation for subjects as seemingly daunting as molecular biology and genetics. And, finally, it creates a new generation of Americans fascinated with birds and their behavior – even for the unlikely star of this saga – the Dark-eyed junco, an ordinary, unobtrusive, small, migrating black and white sparrow, seen mostly in winter. In song and slang, it’s known as the “snow bird.”

Danielle Whittaker has created a page-turner out of her search to prove that birds have a keen sense of smell that guides some of their most important and fascinating behaviors. “Follow your nose! It always knows” says Toucan Sam, the mascot for Fruit Loops. That is the epigraph to Whittaker’s Preface that signals the fun, imaginative leaps, and creativity in the pages to follow that most of us don’t associate with scientists. The Preface is called “Follow Your Nose.” That means, of course, go with your gut, don’t just follow what others tell you. This instinct to question the conventional wisdom, to stray from the beaten path, is the appealing aroma that wafts from The Secret Perfume as we follow Whittaker from her undergraduate days as a “starry-eyed English major who understood nothing about how academia worked” to a fearless Roller Derby referee, to the managing director of the Beacon Research Center for the Study of Evolution in Action at Michigan State University.

Unsure what to do after college, Whittaker decides that going to foreign lands and adventures could be nice. So, she goes to graduate school in anthropology, studies the behavior of gibbons, but then shifts to birds because they are more interesting, colorful, close at hand, and you don’t have to spend endless days in the jungle trying to get a few samples of gibbon fecal matter to study.

This is how, following her nose, Whittaker comes to research whether birds can smell (the scientific consensus had been that they can’t) and sniff around the preen odor from the wings of juncos – to see how they may use smell in mate selection, remain faithful or cheat, ward off predators, and far more. But the obstacles to this quest are just starting when a senior male colleague at her biology postdoc at Indiana University states simply, condescendingly, “Birds don’t have a sense of smell, so I don’t understand why you’d study that anyway.”

Having endured such arrogance and finding ways to answer increasingly intriguing scientific questions makes Whittaker the ideal guide for general readers, undergraduates, scientists, and younger academics who may have avoided scientific study, teaching, or writing – or feel mired in it — because of the dreadful, decayed way it has often been conducted and conveyed.

Rest assured that Whittaker does not neglect serious science. Instead, she makes it accessible, even entertaining. I found myself happily deep into a chapter on the major histocompatibility complex, or MHC, how the coding of proteins by MHC works, the language of ligands and peptides, and such, because Whittaker let me know that MHC could possibly influence mate preferences (undergraduates look up from their iPhones at this point). She then tells the story of the “stinky t-shirt study.” In the 1990s, Dr. Claus Wedekind of the University of Bern was curious if the ability of lab mice to sniff out and choose mates with differing MHC genes (a biological advantage) might be similar in humans. Hence forty-four male college students are asked to skip deodorants and soap and keep wearing their t-shirts for two days. Then forty-nine college women are brought in to sniff the smelly underwear to see if they have preferences. I will not give away or spoil the answer. Suffice to say that throughout her book and her career, Danielle Whittaker understands that filling folks with just scientific facts and formulas is folly. We need to care, to be motivated, to feel that what we are hearing or reading matters.

And like Rachel Carson, Whittaker believes that if we humans learn that all animals, including us, have amazing abilities to sense and feel, to sniff and smell, to react to our environment and choose our own path, we will not want to harm or destroy such creatures. This is the stuff of empathy and a profound environmental ethic. It is why even an ordinary, unobtrusive backyard bird like the junco matters; it is why the simple question whether a small bird can smell is such a profound one. Follow your nose into The Secret Perfume of Birds. It is far more than a book about the science of bird behavior, or how to create innovative scientific breakthroughs inside and outside of the academy. It will change how you perceive the world and how you choose to live in it.

Bob Musil is the President & CEO of the Rachel Carson Council and the co-lead, with Ross Feldner and Isabel Wood, of the RCC Bird Watch and Wonder Program. He is an avid birder and author of Washington in Spring: A Nature Journal for a Changing Capital (Bartleby Press)