Chili peppers produce the pungent vanilloid compound capsaicin, which offers protection from predatory mammals. Birds are indifferent to the pain-producing effects of capsaicin and therefore serve as vectors for seed dispersal. Here, we determine the molecular basis for this species-specific behavioral response by identifying a domain of the rat vanilloid receptor that confers sensitivity to capsaicin to the normally insensitive chicken ortholog. Like its mammalian counterpart, the chicken receptor is activated by heat or protons, consistent with the fact that both mammals and birds detect noxious heat and experience thermal hypersensitivity. Our findings provide a molecular basis for the ecological phenomenon of directed deterence and suggest that the capacity to detect capsaicin-like inflammatory substances is a recent acquisition of mammalian vanilloid receptors.