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Native bird smells may lure predators

BY SHANE COWLISHAW
Last updated 05:00 24/09/2010
Jim Briskie
CARYS MONTEATH
BIRD SCENTS: Biological sciences associate professor Jim Briskie has received a Marsden Fund grant for his research on the body odours of native birds.

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Smelly kiwis and other New Zealand birds could have their own lifesaving deodorants.

Canterbury University associate professor Jim Briskie believes the country's native birds may not have learnt to mask their smells like their continental counterparts, making them an easy target for predators.

The Canadian, who moved to New Zealand 13 years ago, has been awarded more than $600,000 over three years from this year's Marsden Fund to investigate the theory.

He said his research could potentially lead to innovative technology, such as odour-eaters for bird nests. "Down the line if we do find some species are particularly smelly or vulnerable, perhaps I can design a deodorant for kiwis."

Briskie began his research after hearing people refer to kiwis as smelling like mushrooms and kakapo like musty violin cases and wondering if native birds smelt any different to their foreign cousins.

A bird's smell comes from the preening waxes they use to maintain their feathers.

The wax is squeezed from a small gland on their rump, but continental birds seem to be able to mask their smell, especially around nesting season.

Briskie gathered wax samples from six songbirds and found that New Zealand birds did seem to smell stronger.

The New Zealand robin had a musky smell that was more pungent during mating season.

Briskie believed birds that evolved with a threat from predators had learnt to tone down their odour, while New Zealand birds did not have that benefit.

He planned to use the grant money for a larger field study and hoped to test rarer birds, such as the kiwi and kakapo.

Once the wax samples were collected, they would be sent to a German laboratory for testing.

Determining which birds were susceptible to predators through their smell would be an important piece of the protection puzzle.

Briskie said if his theory was proven, it could be a powerful tool in protecting more species from extinction.

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