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Lack of predator-odor detection and avoidance by a songbird, the House Wren

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Recent studies suggest that songbirds have a better sense of smell than initially suspected. Work is now focused on determining how birds use their sense of smell to enhance survival and reproduction. One question is whether birds use smell to detect and avoid predators. We examined the reaction of House Wrens (Troglodytes aedon) to the odor of a potential predator in their nests. On two different days of the nestling stage, we placed papers infused with the urine and anal scent gland material of a mustelid (American mink, Neovison vison), a neutral odoriferous substance (cologne, garlic, or vinegar), or water in nest boxes. The proportion of individuals that hesitated to enter nest boxes after first arrival did not differ significantly between treatments on either day. We also found no significant differences on either day in the time it took wrens to first enter nest boxes, time spent in nest boxes after first entry, the propensity to stay in nest boxes and brood young, or latency to return to nest boxes after first exposure to treatments. Our results suggest that House Wrens either did not detect or did not respond to foreign odors in nest cavities, including the odor of a mustelid predator. In a similar study ( Amo et al. 2008. Functional Ecology 22: 289–293), adult Blue Tits (Cyanistes caeruleus) were less likely to enter nest boxes that contained the odor of a mustelid. One explanation for this difference is that Blue Tits may have a better sense of smell than House Wrens. Alternatively, or additionally, Blue Tits may be inherently (or as result of experience) more prone than House Wrens to avoid unusual odors or, specifically, the odor of mustelid predators in their nests. Additional studies are needed to determine the extent to which songbirds use their sense of smell to detect and avoid nest predators.
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Keywords: Troglodytes aedon; odor detection; olfaction; predator avoidance; smell

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Biological Sciences, Towson University, Towson, Maryland 21252, USA

Publication date: June 1, 2011

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