Thom Smith | Naturewatch: Robin Redbreast and his love of slimy aliens

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With spring thaw comes the earthworm and robin.

They seem to go together, and this best known of our native birds, the adaptable and abundant American robin preys on this denizen of the earth and wherever there is soil following gentle shower or cloudburst, in woodland or meadow, lawn or garden there is the ever-present earthworm, small enough to dubbed a wiggler or large enough to be known as the fisherman's friend, the night crawler.

Earthworms are all around us, or should I say, beneath us.

Few of us go looking for crawlers unless we are planning a fishing trip. Common as these are today, that wasn't always so.

In fact, the common earthworms we see today only arrived in America with the Pilgrims and early settlers.

Some arrived in the bowels of ships with ballast, while others arrived on our shores with plants lovingly cared for on their voyage by European settlers.

It is said most native earthworms had died out many thousands of years ago when North America was covered in ice — and even those that didn't have suffered from competition by the more aggressive invasive aliens, the worms we know.

Most of us have seen earthworms at one time or another, especially in the springtime when we have lots of rain, the ground warms up and robins rely on them for food.

Who hasn't watched a robin hopping over a lawn, turning its head this way and that while searching for a worm poking its head out from just below the ground. Under these conditions, the fruit- and berry-eating robin becomes a dangerous predator, at least as far as the earthworm is concerned.

The worm is in its tunnel and even though it doesn't have ears or hear as we do, it can feel the noise (vibration) a robin makes as it hops over the soft grass.

The earthworm will go deeper into its tunnel to escape, but sometimes not quickly enough. Those are the ones that get eaten.

A worm doesn't have legs or arms, but does have tiny hairs that help it move or help keep it safe in its tunnel.

Sometimes, Robin Redbreast doesn't have to hunt earthworms, especially after a rain when they can be found on top of the wet ground.

People used to think worms came out following a heavy rain so they wouldn't drown, but that isn't true.

Earthworms do not have lungs to fill with water, but get air through their moist, slimy skin.

Watch a worm move sometime and you'll notice that its pointy end moves forward.

That is its head. You won't find any eyes; earthworms are blind, but somehow they can sense light. They try to avoid light, and usually come out of the ground only at night when it is cooler and moister than during the daytime.

There are many different kinds of worms in the world, and not all are robin-size.

One kind from South Africa is over 20 feet long. Another, found in Australia, is 12 feet long.

Some kinds of earthworms never get longer than one inch and, in fact, there are more than 180 earthworm species found in the U.S. and Canada, with 60 being brought from the Old World.

Earthworms may be excellent inhabitants in compost piles and compacted soils, but not so much so in woodlands and fertile garden soils that are already well-aerated.

An early riser, the robin begins caroling shortly after arriving in the spring to insure other robins respect its territory and to attract a mate.

Can it be our robin that inspired, "The early bird gets the worm?" Just before first light it begins its pleasing performance.

It nests in shrubs, on porches, windowsills, and even in old mailboxes, or almost any kind of shelf. In warmer climes a pair of robins can raise three successful broods, while in New England, two broods are the norm.

In fall many gather in flocks staying north finding sustenance from wild berries and small fruits, while others head further south for the winter months.

These are the original "snowbirds."

Thom Smith welcomes your questions and comments. Email him at Naturewatch@ live.com or write him care of The Berkshire Eagle, 75 S. Church St., Pittsfield, MA 01201.


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