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Do Early Birds Catch Worms?

Do Early Birds Catch Worms?

By Ralph Incher-Smith
Department of Proverbial Renunciation, Canterbury, Kent.

I compared the feeding rates of my young son with those of common garden birds to test the hypothesis that early birds catch the worm. I conclude that birds do get up early but mainly out of spite, not the desire to catch worms.


During spring, and for a good few months, birds show off about how early they can get up by sitting directly outside my window and making a god-awful racket.

Since it seems that my chances of getting a lie-in past 5am during that time disappear completely, I decided to spend my time usefully. If you can’t beat them (and I have tried, with a variety of implements) you have to join them.

This current study set about attempting to ascertain whether the early bird does indeed catch worms at a faster rate than more leisurely specimens.

Worm numbers were counted using a new piece of apparatus called a Ground Ultrasonic Booster, which emits seismic pulses that hit the worms (harmlessly) and are reflected back to the machine producing a perfect picture of where worms are located underground.

Figure 1 illustrates typical recording from this GRUB machine taken at 1 minute, 5 minutes and 15 minutes after first insertion into the ground.

The numbers of worms being caught by birds was recorded. For the test to be valid I needed to be able to test between early and late rising birds.

Unfortunately all birds seem to get up pretty early - usually with the express purpose of sitting outside my bedroom window and shouting their heads off. It was therefore difficult to find a good sample of late birds; to get around this problem I used a surrogate in the shape of my three-year old son.

The average lifespan of worm-eating birds such as blackbirds tends to be around 1.5 to 2 years. It just so happens that for the last eighteen months or so Tim has practised the art of capturing and devouring invertebrates of a great range of different species.

Hence I feel that, since the birds and Tim would have had similar amounts of experience in the art of worm capture, a fair comparison can be made between the two.

Tim makes a fine individual for comparative purposes since he is singularly capable of sleeping throughout the early-morning cacophonous onslaught of our avian neighbours, rarely rising before 8.30am.

The average numbers of worms being captured by the birds/child were recorded each half hour before lunch.

Worm activity near the Earth’s surface is actually highest early in the morning (I haven’t bothered to show the data because it’s not very interesting) dropping off as the day progresses and the ground warms up.

The birds actually seem to be waiting until the worms are harder to catch before they move in for the kill. Figure 2 clearly shows that the birds’ peak capture period was around 10.30am - a very reasonable time for snacking of any sort - whereas Tim peaked about an hour earlier, during the first of his daily garden forays.

So the later riser got the worms first. The sharp dip in bird performance just after 9am can be attributed to the appearance of Tim’s new JCB dumper truck toy, driven around the study site at speed for ten minutes in order to work up a bit of a post-breakfast appetite.
As for whether early birds get the worms: they don’t even really get going until later in the morning, worm capture rates being relatively low for the first couple of hours after dawn.

Birds do, however, seem to be slightly more effective at capturing worms than humans, although it must be pointed out that the birds may have been more prey-specific than Tim.

Tim has been known to eat a great deal of other invertebrate life, foraging more widely than the average bird, for example under stones and in the pond. Dietary preferences of the immature male human are shown in figure 3 using the T. Incher-Smith index of prey quality.

Birds might get up early, but seemingly only do so for the purposes of doing their utmost to stir the rest of the living world from their well-earned and well-needed slumbers. Spitefulness of this kind has only previously been recorded in humans, horses and one particularly obnoxious sperm whale.

When birds do get around to feeding they fare only marginally better than predators of similar experience which get up much later and don’t feel the need to announce their presence loudly every morning - Tim likes to wait a little longer before crashing into the world with his own brand of quasi-nuclear destructive techniques.

However, it should be pointed out that the birds did on the whole catch more worms. This could be linked in some way to the fact that they had been awake for longer. But I doubt it.

I feel I have proved that birds are generally malicious good-for-nothings intent on ruining the sleep patterns of the rest of the living world. Having wheedled their way into society’s affections by being twittery and small they are now abusing our good nature. I would like to see action being taken to show birds in their true light.

I warmly thank Tim for chewing many a bug in the name of scientific discovery. They say he’ll grow out of it - let’s hope not.

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Image: Alleba

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20 Jul 2017
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