Hummingbirds have a sense of smell: so why do we keep saying that they don’t?


One of the general features associated with specialised hummingbird-pollinated flowers in the New World is that they often have no scent perceptible to the human nose.  This is then interpreted as evidence that hummingbirds have no sense of smell, which strikes me as circular reasoning at best.  This “fact” is then frequently repeated in text books and on the web, for example at the Bird Watcher’s Digest site, at The Spruce site, and at the World of Hummingbirds.

However I know of only two research papers that have tested whether or not hummingbirds can smell, both of them short notes; and in both cases they found that the hummingbirds they tested could associate scents with food in artificial flowers.  Those studies (with links to the originals) are:

Goldsmith, K.M. & Goldsmith, T.H. (1982) Sense of smell in the black-chinned hummingbird. Condor 84: 237-238

Heringer, H. et al. (n.d. – c. 2006?) Estudo da capacidade olfatória em três representantes da subfamília Trochilinae: Eupetomena macroura (Gould, 1853), Thalurania furcata eriphile (Lesson, 1832) e Amazilia lactea (Lesson, 1832).  Unpublished manuscript – possibly a student project (?)

It surprises me that this has been so little studied, given how much research has otherwise been done on hummingbirds.  Have I missed any other studies?  Clearly vision is more important for hummingbirds when locating food, but that’s not the same as stating that hummingbirds have no sense of smell.  Seems to be one of those myths that won’t go away, of which there are many in pollination biology.

Comments welcomed, as always.


5 thoughts on “Hummingbirds have a sense of smell: so why do we keep saying that they don’t?

  1. Pingback: Seven things that I learned at the SCAPE 2018 meeting in Ireland | Jeff Ollerton's Biodiversity Blog

  2. Sharon Marano

    I live in B.C. Canada. May 16-19 2020 , my family and I were camping fairly deeply in the bush. There were no flowering bushes , plants or wild flowers in the surrounding pine and fir forest. I put up a hummingbird feeder and within 2 hours a hummingbird came and fed. By the end of 3 days there was 4 birds. I felt sure they must have an extremely sensitive sense of smell otherwise how did they find. our feeder. So I was quite surprised to read that the thought was they had no sense of smell…..
    Sharon Marano

  3. Kris

    I just saw a hummingbird go to one of my trees that has been recently holed by a wood pecker. The sap is dripping out of the holes in the trunk, but it is otherwise not a place that would be energy profitable to look for nutrients. That’s what got me searching and brought me to this post. I think they must have smelled the sap, otherwise their eyesight is incredible.


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