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    Smell is a sensory modality that is rarely considered in birds, but evidence is mounting that olfaction is an important aspect of avian behaviour and ecology. The uropygial gland produces an odoriferous secretion (preen oil) that can differ seasonally and between the sexes. These differences are hypothesized to function in olfactory camouflage, i.e. minimizing detection by nest predators (olfactory crypsis hypothesis), and/or intraspecific olfactory communication, particularly during breeding (sex semiochemical hypothesis). However, evidence for seasonal and sex differences in preen oil is mixed, with some studies finding differences and others not, and direct evidence for the putative function(s) of seasonal variation and sex differences in preen oil remains limited. We conducted a systematic review of the evidence for such changes in preen oil chemical composition, finding seasonal differences in 95% of species (57/60 species in 35 studies) and sex differences in 47% of species (28/59 species in 46 studies). We then conducted phylogenetic comparative analyses using data from 59 bird species to evaluate evidence for both the olfactory crypsis and sex semiochemical hypotheses. Seasonal differences were more likely in the incubating than non-incubating sex in ground-nesting species, but were equally likely regardless of incubation strategy in non-ground-nesting species. This result supports the olfactory crypsis hypothesis, if ground nesters are more vulnerable to olfactorily searching predators than non-ground nesters. Sex differences were more likely in species with uniparental than biparental incubation and during breeding than non-breeding, consistent with both the olfactory crypsis and sex semiochemical hypotheses. At present, the data do not allow us to disentangle these two hypotheses, but we provide recommendations that will enable researchers to do so. © 2022 The Authors. Biological Reviews published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of Cambridge Philosophical Society.


    Leanne A Grieves, Marc Gilles, Innes C Cuthill, Tamás Székely, Elizabeth A MacDougall-Shackleton, Barbara A Caspers. Olfactory camouflage and communication in birds. Biological reviews of the Cambridge Philosophical Society. 2022 Jun;97(3):1193-1209

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    PMID: 35128775

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