The bird of dawning singeth all night long

I have discovered, much to my dismay, that I am not omniscient -not even close. There are some things you just don’t expect -things that seldom surface over dinner, or on the bus where you can’t help but overhear words drifting back from the seat ahead. Of course, most of them are banal and unimportant, so a certain level of  ignorance could be excused without the fear  of a humiliating naïveté. Some, however, have been flaunting their secrets all this time on the branches just above our heads. We merely had to look up.

Birds, for example -who knew they smelled? I first learned about that on a bus when I found myself sitting behind two elderly ladies who were busy chatting about the odours of their canaries. They were never clear about the cause, but it did get me thinking about my own bird at home when I was a child. I used to have a little white budgie named Twerpie (don’t ask), that could have used a little attention. My mother said it was because I wasn’t changing the paper on the bottom of her cage regularly enough (or his perhaps -we never found any identifying appurtenances). It was only after Twerpie had escaped through an open door and I realized the smell was still there, that I began to understand how much you have to know as a mother.

At any rate, it’s not budgie odour to which I am referring. They probably have unique smells, but only to each other -sort of like our own nasally invisible pheromones, I guess. No, what surprised me is that not only can they smell each other, but that it’s also really important for intraspecies identification -sort of how guys can identify each other’s gym bags. Actually, what surprised me even more is that they must have noses somewhere.

Anyway, you know how they’re always preening themselves? Well, maybe not budgies -I can only speak for seagulls, actually. What they’re really doing is spreading around preen –the oil in their uropygial gland; its oil cleans and preserves their feathers, apparently. I mean, who knew what they were doing to themselves? And, wouldn’t you know it, the gland has its own microbiome, the residents of which, produce odoriferous chemicals unique to each bird. Of course, I’ve known people like that, but I would never bring it to their attention or anything.

How, you might ask, do I know this? More importantly, why would it matter to someone who hasn’t kept birds since his mother sent him to his bedroom without supper for trying to get his budgie to sit on his plate in the kitchen? Well, an article in the Smithsonian Magazine reminded me of the incident:

‘For decades, researchers thought birds lacked a sense of smell. The line of thinking was that scent gets dispersed in the wind, so it’s not the most accurate tool to locate prey or keep tabs on a predator.’ My thoughts, exactly. Mind you, how do pigeons know where you’ve thrown the bread crumbs if their back happened to be turned away au moment critique? Some things I just accept as acta non verba, I suppose. ‘Now, a new study suggests that not only can birds smell, they identify each other using the unique scent of the microbiome found in their preen glands located at the base of their tail feathers.’ Well, considering the source – a paper published in the Journal of Experimental Biology by the ornithologist Danielle Whittaker from Michigan State University- I’m inclined to take it seriously.

I mean it makes sense -why wouldn’t birds have a microbiome hidden somewhere safe? Everybody else hides theirs, too, although I’m not aware that we use ours for preening, or anything. Mind you, I don’t get out to clubs a lot nowadays.

‘For the study, the team injected antibiotics directly into the preen glands of dark-eyed juncos, a North American songbird, then analyzed how that changed the bacterial communities in the preen oil and subsequently, the odor.’ Personally, I’m impressed -Twerpie would never have let me do that. ‘They found that all of the bacteria in the birds’ microbiome produce certain scent notes. When combined, the bacteria produce the birds’ personal scent.’

I felt a certain sense of exoneration as well, when I read that ‘it’s not clear whether the bacteria are solely responsible for the scent or if the birds themselves produce other odor molecules as well.’ I remember hating to change that filthy paper in Twerpie’s cage every day or so -especially when it seemed obvious to me that I just had a smelly bird.

Anyway, these findings may have far reaching consequences: ‘Over the past few decades, researchers have found that juncos living in urban areas no longer breed with juncos from the woodlands. She [Whittaker] hopes to investigate whether changes in each population’s microbiome are causing them to become reproductively isolated from one another. It’s possible that city birds and country birds literally do not like the smell of one another.’

Of course, any hope of absolution -even so many years later- quickly disappeared when I read that.  After all, Twerpie may not have fitted in with whatever wild budgies were hanging around on that January day in Winnipeg, as I had hoped at the time. And at any rate, as luck would have it, my mother was not only a paper aficionado, but she also had a certificate in guilt pedagogy, and the next morning at breakfast, she apprised me of what would likely have become of a white tropical bird in the snowstorm which she was good enough to point out through our Jack Frosted window.

Still, I remember that I was determined to prove her wrong. In a hastily contrived journey of redemption, I set out in my cumbersome snowsuit with its woolen mitts held in place by a long thread through the sleeves, and wandered around in the freezing cold for what seemed like hours in a vain attempt to find a white budgie hunkered down and hiding in the snow somewhere. But alas, her camouflage was too effective for me to resolve in the swirling blizzard. Still, I’d still like to think that it saved her from being detected by the owl watching me from the tree across the street. Or maybe I can cling to the hope my mother offered me when I returned home empty-handed, that the owl wouldn’t like the smell that was probably still sticking to Twerpie from the cage paper I hadn’t yet changed.

I mean, she said owls were fussy…


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