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How the Robin Finds Worms and More About Connecticut's State Bird

The American robin's common name results from a case of mistaken identity, and it's really not an accurate sign of spring. Facts and fallacies about this perky bird.

The American robin is one of those birds that is so common it lends credence to the old saw about familiarity breeding contempt. Perhaps contempt is too strong a word, but the robin is often taken for granted because of its familiarity. If it were rare, the beautiful orange that it sports from chin to underparts would make it a birder's prize.

A considerable body of lore — not all  factual — surrounds the American robin, state bird of Connecticut as well as of Michigan and Wisconsin. Our bird got its name from the orange-chested Old World, or "European,"  robin because early European colonists in America  were wont to name New World animals after look-alike species in the old country. Thus Eurasia's elk is our moose. In Eurasia, our misnamed elk is the red deer.

The original name of the European robin was itself an inexact description. In old England, the European robin was called robin redbreast, then just robin. Why redbreast and not orangebreast? The early English lexicon had no word for the color orange, which was referred to by a term meaning red-yellow; the word "orange' itself comes from ancient Sanskrit.

Color aside, the two species of robin are vastly different birds and may not even be cousins. Scientists have argued for years about whether the European robin, like ours, is a thrush or a member of a separate group gene-wise, the Old World flycatchers. Taxonomists, the people whose job it is to assign niches in the ladder of life to organisms, seem to secure job tenure by continually changing the status of myriad creatures, so the position of the European robin has been shuffled back and forth in a scientific shell game.

For what it's worth taxonomically, Europeans call a common Old World member of the same genus as the American robin, Turdus, the blackbird, as in four-and-twenty baked in a pie.

Nomenclature aside, the considerable credit that our robin receives as a herald of spring is largely unwarranted. True, many robins migrate south and return north with the spring. However, if you see a robin on a frigid January day, do not hope for spring's premature return, global warming or no. Many robins overwinter; you do not see them as often as in warm weather because they cannot pry worms from frozen lawns and and instead concentrate in large roosts, sometimes numbering thousands of birds and often confined to trees in areas where they can feed on winter berries.

Although berries and fruits form a substantial part of the robin's diet, its preference for earthworms is legendary. So is its ability to catch the wriggly critters; perhaps only the woodcock challenges the robin for the gold when it comes to targeting worms.

Exactly what senses are critical to the robin's lethal strikes on worms has been the subject of considerable scientific debate. The sight of a robin searching for worms with its head cocked led observers suggest that its ears — located on the sides of its head — were the primary weapon. Then, in 1965, Dr. Frank Heppner, an ornithologist, conducted ingenious experiments indicating that sight, not sound, was the secret.

Smell was discarded when he found that robins readily ate stinky stuff like rotten eggs and decayed meat. Touch — as in sensing vibrations — was discarded when Heppner found that robins plucked motionless dead worms from holes and devoured them. Next, Heppner drilled experimental worm holes and presented them to robins. They turned up their beaks at empty holes but not at those containing worms, no matter if the worms were alive or dead, covered with a foul substance or not.

As far as most scientists were concerned, Heppner's experiment was proof enough, and until 1997, textbooks indicated that worm capture depended mostly on vision. Then, two Canadian scientists, Robert Montgomerie and Robert Weatherhead, published a conflicting theory in the journal Animal Behaviour. They experimented with robins and mealworms, which are really beetle larvae but wormlike enough to serve as earthworm stand-ins. Robins could not find buried mealworms if their hearing was subject to noise. If the senses of touch, smell and vision were blocked, but hearing unimpaired, the meanworms were dead ducks. Thus, the scientists concluded, hearing does indeed play a role, although perhaps in concert with vision.

Speaking of worms, some scientists believe that the expansion of robins north and south of their range when Europeans first arrived is partly due to Old World worms that hitched a ride. There may be as many kinds of introduced earthworms in North American soils as native. Like most of us, robins enjoy foods imported from the Continent. Other reasons for expanding robin range may be creation of laws, athletic fields and golf courses that provide better worm habitat and hunting grounds for redbreast.

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Turkey Scouter is a mobile app designed to help hunters gather and plot turkey information, roosting spots, track locations, feeding areas and other information that helps to bag a bird. Produced by FLT Information Technology of Utica, NY, and available from the Apple App Store, the app enables hunters to log turkey movements, pinpoint roosts and fine tune travel routes. Released for this season, it costs $1.99.

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Wallingford Rod and Gun Club, 414 North Branford Rd., Wallingford, hosts a Fun Shoot May 19 benefiting the programs of the Houstonic Council, Boy Scouts of America. For information 203-922-2979, email rmanger@snet.net.

***East Glastonbury Fish and Game Club, Plneta Rd., Marlborough, has a sporting clays event at 9 a.m. May 20. For information, call 860-295-7823 or check the website www.EGFG.org.

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