Junco

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Bacteria give bird its sexy smells

Birds are perhaps best known for their bright colors, aerial prowess, and melodic songs. But research presented in Austin last week at the Evolution Conference shows that bacteria have granted some birds another important attribute: stink. Having long taken a back seat to sight and sound, scent is becoming more and more recognized as an important sense for songbirds, and dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis, pictured) are no stranger to it. When these common birds clean their feathers—or preen—they spread pungent oil from their “preen glands” all over their bodies. The act is important for enticing mates: Three of the gland’s smelly chemicals are found in very different quantities in the two sexes, and males with a more masculine musk end up with more offspring. Females with a more feminine scent profile are more successful, too. But juncos likely aren’t making their perfume alone: Lots of those preen gland chemicals are naturally made by bacteria. And new work is making the bird-bacteria link even more firm. When researchers inject antibiotics into the juncos’ preen glands, the concentrations of three smelly molecules tend to decrease—the same three molecules that juncos find sexy in the right proportions, Danielle Whittaker of Michigan State University in East Lansing told attendees. So it seems like juncos may actually be picking mates based on their bacterial—rather than self-produced—body odor, a first for birds.