How Do Birds Taste Their Food?

While birds' beaks may seem hard and impermeable, in some species like ducks the insides are coated with hundreds of taste buds.

This audio story is brought to you by BirdNote, a partner of The National Audubon Society. BirdNote episodes air daily on public radio stations nationwide.


This is BirdNote.

Even though it’s been known for many years that birds spit out caterpillars they find repellent, little research has yet been devoted to birds’ sense of taste. And because birds have tough, bony beaks and hard, skinny tongues, it was just hard for experts to give birds much credit for tasting their food. So it wasn’t until the 1970s that a scientist found taste buds on the inside of a duck’s bill—more than 400 of them. 

And an experiment with ducks showed that when they picked up peas with the tips of their bills, they could easily discriminate between normal peas, which they happily gulped down, and unpleasant-tasting peas, which they rejected. 

Taste buds have been studied in only a few bird species, so the field of inquiry is wide open. It is known that hummingbirds can taste different concentrations of sugar and that sandpipers can taste the presence of worms under a mudflat. 

The fact that birds have far fewer taste buds than humans doesn’t necessarily mean their sense of taste is crude. As one Hollywood duck might put it… *Daffy Duck audio clip* Oh, that's ridiculous! Of all the stupid suggestions!

For BirdNote, I'm Mary McCann



Written by Bob Sundstrom

Narrator: Mary McCann

Producer: John Kessler

Executive Producer: Dominic Black

Bird sounds provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Mallard calls [133222] recorded by Michael J Andersen. BirdNote’s theme music was composed and played by Nancy Rumbel and John Kessler.

© 2015 Tune In to    May 2017