I was playing with my cockatiels with my son the other day when he started trying to test out their sense of smell.
He would offer them different things with different aromas and see how they reacted.
It was an interesting methodology, I thought, as well as an interesting question—but I figured my son’s experiments would only take us so far.
So I decided to do some of my own research and find out.
Do cockatiels have a good sense of smell?
The simple answer is not really. Birds in general do not have great sense of smell, since it’s probably the least advantageous sensory apparatus for a creature that can fly. Most of their senses are more attuned to vision and sound. They do have some sense of smell, but it is not great.
There is a very old myth about birds that if you find a baby bird alone on the street, you should not touch it because the mother will smell you on it and reject the chick.
This is untrue, for the simple reason that a bird would not be sensitive enough to smell you on it.
In any case, let’s look at cockatiels in particular.
How good is a cockatiel’s sense of smell?
The simple answer is not very.
Though there is not much direct research into cockatiels specifically, we do know that their sensory receptors are there, but they are quite limited.
Indeed, by comparison with most species, cockatiels do not have a particularly advanced sense of smell.
The same is true of birds as a whole, and there are many evolutionary reasons for this.
For one thing, almost all birds need to have brilliant eyesight.
Birds of prey certainly have the best vision, coining terms like ‘eagle eye’, as they need to be able to identify prey from very high up.
Cockatiels do not need eyesight as good as this, but they still need to be very keenly visually aware.
This means that they’ve had less room for selective adaptations regarding hearing over the millions of years.
Being up in the air moving at high-speed means air is going to be constantly flowing away from you.
Being able to pick up on smells in this movement, even if you did have a very sensitive nose, would be extremely difficult.
So, cockatiels have scent receptors, but they do not serve a great deal of use.
They’re just an extra level to their picture of the world, like ours is.
Do they actually have a nose, then?
Do cockatiels have a nose?
Yes, cockatiels do have noses—although not in the same way we do.
It’s just a couple of slits on the front of their face, allowing for the entry of scent molecules.
They do not have nostrils, but instead these small slits are called nares.
Their noses are not jutting out from their faces, like ours are.
This is primarily an issue of aerodynamism.
Just like with their ears, if cockatiels had a long nose sticking out of their face, it would massively increase drag when they flew.
So, their noses are just small slits that allow air to pass through and for some scent molecules to enter.
They don’t breathe through their mouths, purely through their nares—so the main function of their own smell sensory apparatus isn’t even smelling odors.
In any case, yes, they do have noses, they just aren’t all that noticeable.
Can cockatiels smell food?
Yes, cockatiels can smell food—as far as we know.
Again, there is an unfortunate paucity of research and experiments on this subject, so it’s difficult to say with any certainty.
However, you can see for yourself that they will perk up in the presence of odorous food, even if they don’t see it.
This is hard to measure or define, but they clearly are sensitive on some level.
That said, they used other means primarily to identify food.
They will look at it, and use their beak to feel it.
This will give them the information they need to identify it.
What about their owners?
We all know dogs know each other by smell, so how do cockatiels know us?
Can cockatiels smell their owners?
The simple answer, again, is that we don’t really know.
What evidence we have would suggest they don’t identify us by our smell.
That isn’t to say they don’t know us—they just do so via sight and touch, rather than via smell.
The simple fact is that cockatiels would not be sensitive, particularly, to any kind of odor we might give off.
They know and love us via sight, but they likely couldn’t make sense of us via smell.
So, while it was once thought that cockatiels had no sense of smell whatsoever, we know now that they do.
It just isn’t particularly sensitive or advanced.
This isn’t a defect or a shortcoming, though—birds would not be so wildly successful across the whole planet if they needed a better sense of smell.
There’s just not much advantage for a bird in having a great sense of smell.
They spend most of their time flying through the air, where the air moves too fast for them to smell it.