VanHaren: Robins provide fascination and curiosity to the backyard

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Roger VanHaren

I spend a lot of time sitting on my porch watching the birds. One of the most curious of them is the robin. They hop along the ground, cocking their heads from side to side, and then they’ll suddenly stab at the ground and come up with a worm. How do they do that?

So you know what, I decided to do a little research and find out. I found out that robins have exceptional vision (I guess most birds do) and that they can spot the tiny end of a worm as it pokes through the soil. They can also see small changes in soil and grass as worms move about just below the surface, movements that indicate where a worm is located.

Robins are also known to use visual, auditory, and possibly vibrations or tactile cues to find prey, but vision is predominant. The way the robins turn their heads when searching for food suggests they could be using visual or auditory cues, but it wasn’t until scientists tested robins in the lab that we really knew for sure how they find worms.

In the test, the robins were placed in aviaries where they could be given buried mealworms in trays of dirt. To test if they were using scent to locate their prey, birds were offered trays with buried live, moving worms and dead ones. Robins found the live worms more often, suggesting they were not using scent.

In the next test, the birds were given hanging food trays to keep them from touching the soil with their feet and detecting the worm’s vibrations. The trays did not affect their ability to find the worms, suggesting they do not use tactile cues.

When cardboard was used as a barrier to block visual cues, the birds could still find the worms. That meant they were using another sense — hearing. So the scientists used one last experiment using white noise to block sound cues, and the birds had more difficulty finding the worms.

So the researchers concluded that robins could use either visual or auditory cues alone to find worms in the soil, but probably use both. So the next time you see a robin “head-cocking” you can be fairly sure it’s listening and looking for those mouthwatering treats!

A little fun fact (fairly gaggy) is that a robin can eat up to 14 feet of earthworms a day. Well, OK, so now I know how they do it.

I think it’s fascinating, but we have a robin in our yard who must have some sort of identity crisis; we think he thinks he’s an oriole or a cardinal. He spends most of his day in pretty close proximity to our feeding station by the back porch.

He eats out of the seed trays like the cardinals do, often sharing the space with them. but he spends more time at the oriole feeder. He eats big gobs of grape jelly — got to be better than 14 feet of earthworms, don’t you think?

He hangs out in the trees at the back of the yard where the orioles and cardinals hang out rather than in the cedar windbreak at the west side of the house where the robins hang out. Really weird.

Oh , the joys of bird-watching.

Contact Roger VanHaren at