Signs of Spring: Robins and Lawn Mowers

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Two robins (Turdus migratorius) hopped through the yard this week – spring is on its way. The sound of lawn mowers now drift through the air, confirming the avian prediction. Shockingly, these two very distinct signs of warming weather are actually related, according to a backyard research study conducted in 1979.

L.A. Eiserer conducted a series of scientific (well, somewhat) studies examining the impacts of lawn mowing on robin-hunting behaviors. Robins spend more time foraging when grass is short, especially just after it has been mowed.

So is it the mowing or the height of the grass that impacts robin behavior? Eiserer mowed his lawn to two different heights, 2.5 and 4.5 inches. (I wonder if his neighbors complained.) The robins spent 10x as much time in the shorter patch. Apparently, the birds eat different foods when exposed to different heights of grasses. In short grass, robins go for worms; in longer grass, they pluck small insects off the blades. The short-grassed hunting grounds may just be more efficient for finding a heartier meal.

But that doesn’t discount the act of mowing. Observations over the same time of day show the birds prefer hunting in a freshly mowed yard rather than the day after. No difference in grass height, but perhaps the act of mowing disturbs invertebrates, allowing for a more successful hunt.

Overall, I miss the days when a researcher could sit on a suburban porch and time how long a couple of robins spend looking for food. As I struggle to teach my students how to think like scientists, reading a study like this makes me long for the good old days.

 

Eiserer, L.A. 1980. Effects of Grass Length and Mowing on Foraging Behavior of the American Robin. The Auk. 97(3) 576-580.

Is Your Favorite Animal a WUG?

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Think of your favorite animal. Is it warm and fuzzy? Or fine and feathered?

Many people think of “animals” as mammals, birds, or reptiles. Occasionally a fish, crustacean, or insect will creep in there. But, let’s face it, our view of animals is limited.

Children reflect this discrepancy when asked to draw a picture of a habitat. For instance, Snaddon et al. (2008) found that children drew ~75% mammals, birds, and reptiles in their portrayals of a rainforest. In reality, rainforest animals are 90% insects.

The rainforest isn’t unique. Most animals are insects (beetles, to be specific). It makes the Victorian hobby of beetle-collecting seem a little more understandable now.

And the Nematodes! Nematodes (roundworms) make up a surprisingly high percentage of animal species. Scoop up a trowel-full of soil from your yard, and you’re likely to have thousands upon thousands of nematodes in there.

If we can get children to understand that ecosystems, like rainforests, contain more animals than just vertebrates (and plants too!), the consequences include a better understanding of ecosystem functions and conservation issues.

So introduce yourself and your children to insects and worms (sometimes called “wugs” – worms and bugs). Attend insect-related events at a museum, make insect-face masks for play, visit natural environments, sow insect-promoting native plants (and keep careful track of all the worms in the ground), or tend an insect or worm as a pet for a couple days.

Maybe your new favorite animal won’t have fur or feathers.

 

Snaddon JL, Turner EC, Foster WA (2008) Children’s Perceptions of Rainforest Biodiversity: Which Animals Have the Lion’s Share of Environmental Awareness? PLoS ONE 3(7): e2579. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0002579