The secret life of American Robins

Robins eat more than just worms! Photo by Dendroica cerulea, CC

Robins eat more than just worms! Photo by Dendroica cerulea, CC


As the weather warms, I’ve been seeing dozens of robins hopping along my lawn. Even though I’ve grown up around robins my whole life, I realized that didn’t know much about them. In fact, I think I only knew three things:

1) They have a red breast
2) They eat worms
3) They lay blue eggs

This would never do. I decided to learn more about the American Robin. I asked one the female robins in the vicinity to tell me about her life, straight from the bird’s beak, so to speak.

Me: Tell me about your childhood.

Merle: There’s not much to tell. I was born in a nest with two other siblings. I was constantly hungry. I needed food every 15 minutes from sunrise to sunset. I certainly ran my parents ragged!

Me: Tell me more about your siblings.

Merle: Well, neither of them survived to adulthood. One was eaten by a crow and the other was eaten a few days later by a squirrel. It was sad at the time, but you get used to it, considering that only about 20% of chicks ever become adults. I was one of the lucky ones. There are lots of animals out there that love to sink their teeth into a robin. Circle of life and all that.

Me: When did you leave the nest?

Merle: About two weeks after I hatched. At that point my parents started getting babies on the brain. They kicked me out so they could lay a new batch of eggs in my nest. They were big into recycling. It did take Mom 5 days to build that nest, after all.

Me: Sounds rough! 14 days is pretty young, isn’t it?

Merle: I guess. I could fly, so that was a start. My parents were pretty good about bringing me food for an additional four weeks after I officially left the nest. Then I was really on my own.

Me: Did it get lonely?

Merle: Not really. I joined a huge roost with a bunch of other robins. We would hang out, forage and sleep together. I spent most of the fall and winter with them, eating berries and dried fruit hanging from bushes.

Me: Wait a minute, I thought robins only ate worms?

Merle: Where would we get worms in the winter? We eat fruit in the winter. I’ve even seen my friends drunk if they’ve eaten too many honeysuckle berries! For the record, during the spring and summer I generally eat insects, earthworms and snails in the morning and fruit in the afternoon.

Me: But I never see robins in the winter! Where are you hiding?

Merle: Well we aren’t hopping along your lawns, that’s for sure. Sometimes we migrate, but if there is still food in our breeding area we stick around. We hang out in large groups in trees, barns, or under bridges. Once spring comes males start staking out their territory and courting females. That’s when you start to see us again.

Me: Why does your behaviour change so drastically in the spring?

Merle: Breeding requires a lot of energy. A pair’s territory is basically a pantry where they can constantly collect food to feed their growing family. It’s the male’s job to defend this territory, flying at intruders to scare them away or dive-bombing them if necessary.

Me: Why do robins sometimes run into my window?

Merle: If it’s a male, they may see their reflection as an intruder and try to scare them away. Usually they are a bit stunned after hitting a window, but recover quickly. If you want to prevent it from happening, there are many ways you can make your windows visible to birds. Check them out at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s website.

Me: If the males defend the territory, what are your breeding responsibilities?

Merle: It is my job to find a good location for the nest, usually in a tree branch, light fixture or gutter. I also build the nest, pushing grass into cup shape using the wrist of one of my wings. Then I reinforce it with twigs and mud. I may have two to three clutches of eggs in this nest in one year, if there’s enough food available.

Me: Last question, what is your favorite thing to sing?

Merle: Goodness, females don’t sing! Only the males do that, to attract us during mating season. The crooners get you every time.

There you have it, straight from the bird herself! Hopefully you’ll see the robins in the park a little differently now. And speaking of parks, free guided neighborhood tours are taking place all around the world next weekend on May 3 and 4. Called Jane’s Walks after urbanist Jane Jacobs, they are a great way to see your community from a different perspective. Find one in your city  Hope to see you out there!


Cornell Lab of Ornithology. American Robin.

Encyclopedia Britannica. robin.

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Living With Wildlife: Robins.


Confessions of a Fly Sex Researcher

You’re a third year biology student confused about what on earth you’re going to do once the diploma is in hand. Where will you work? What will you specialize in? Do you have what it takes to do a masters, as your chances of getting work with just a bachelors degree is slim to none?

Your solution? Do an 8 month honours project.

If you’re particularly gung-ho, do two at the same time. (Actually, don’t. It wasn’t one of my better life choices. More on this later).

Once you’ve decided that you’re going to dedicate 8 months of your life to a certain topic, you have to decide what that topic is going to be. For me, this was relatively easy. I liked insects. I liked evolution. So I signed up with a professor who did too. He used fruit flies to study various evolutionary theories. Piece of cake!

After reading many journal articles to make sure our brilliant study had not already been done by someone else (this is an occupational hazard in research), we decided on an experiment.

I would find out what female fruit flies found sexy about the males.

A male Drosophila psuedoobscura flaunting a transparent abdomen complete with orange testes. Photo credit Alex Wild.

A male Drosophila psuedoobscura flaunting a transparent abdomen complete with orange testes. Photo credit Alex Wild.

We suspected it had something to do with the male’s orange testicles. Because, seriously, why else would you have a transparent abdomen and bright orange testes if not to impress the ladies?

As you can imagine, fly sex is a great topic at dinner parties. I am usually asked the following questions:

Q: There are fruit flies everywhere in my kitchen! Can I donate them to you?

A: I understand your pain, but my lab does not take fly donations. I was looking at a very specific species, Drosophila pseudoobscura, which lives in western North America. The flies I worked with originally came from Arizona, but had been bred in labs for many generations to get as uniform a population as possible.

Q: Do all flies have orange testicles?

A: No. I haven’t studied the behinds of other flies, so I can’t say for sure if there are other species out there with florescent testes. There may be, who knows?

Q: Can you see fly testes?

A: Well, the flies are tiny (5mm), so their testes are miniscule. You can see them with the naked eye, but to study them I took pictures using a dissecting microscope.

Q: How to you make flies stand still for pictures?

A: I asked them nicely. Just kidding. I gassed them with carbon dioxide, which knocks them out for a few minutes.

Q: Did you watch fruit flies having sex?

A: (Sigh). Of course I did. To find out which males the females found most attractive, we put two virgin males in an arena with a virgin female. The male she chose to have sex with was the one she liked best. Believe me, the novelty of watching fly sex wears off after the 10th coupling.

Q: Wait a minute, why did you use virgin flies?

A: We had to make sure all our flies had the same level of sexual experience. Like humans, flies can learn from past experiences, which subsequently affect they find attractive in a mate. We wanted our females to have a clean slate.

Here is a lovely life cycle from a pest control company. I guess that it's important in their line of work!

Here is a lovely life cycle from a pest control company. I guess that it’s important in their line of work!

Q: How do you know for sure that your flies are virgins?

A: Fruit flies have a lifecycle similar to butterflies. In D. pseudoobscura, the adult flies can’t reproduce until 48 hours after they struggle out of their pupa (Snook & Markow, 2001).When my flies started emerging from their pupae, I segregated them by sex every 24 hours to make sure they couldn’t get up to any funny business. Sorting hundreds of flies is not an exciting way to spend your Saturday, and thankfully I only had a few Saturdays like that.

Q: What did you find out? Do females find orange testes sexy?

A: Unfortunately, they do not. The size and colour of a male’s testes had nothing to do with whether or not a female chose him. We found the females were more interested in the male’s pheromones, and were selecting mates based on that.

Q: Then why do the males have orange testes?

A: I have no clue. But it’s not related to sex. If you find out, let me know.

Q: Is your research applicable to humans?

A: Not in the slightest! It’s true that flies and humans share many genes, and flies are used as model organisms in studies that can apply to humans. However, human courtship and fly courtship are worlds apart. In fact, different fly species have different kinds of courtship. Therefore, my research can only be applied to this species of fly. Unless, of course, you know any humans with orange testes…

Note: Alex Wild has some more beautiful pictures of some pseudos on the Scientific American blog. Apparently they are an under-photographed species. Go check them out, and remember to look for the orange!

Snook, R. R., & Markow, T. A. (2001). Mating system evolution in sperm-heteromorphic Drosophila. Journal of Insect Physiology, 47(9), 957-964.

There’s a bat on my doorstep!

I find wild animals fascinating. I was raised on PBS Nature documentaries. Some of my earliest memories involve cheetahs chasing down and disemboweling gazelles. I donate money to save polar bears, and gasp with delight when I glimpse a deer in a National park.

However, a wild animal on my property is a different story.

As I stepped out into the bright sunshine with my laundry this morning, I noticed a brown shape huddled on my doorstep. It was a bat. A bat that was obviously in trouble. There were bloodstains on the concrete. His wing was crumpled. He wasn’t moving.

I assumed he was dead.

He wasn’t. That became clear when I tried to pick him up with a plastic bag.

He struggled lethargically. He extended his good wing. He opened his mouth to reveal tiny teeth and an amazingly pink throat.

I was hit with a number of emotions at once:

1) Wonder. I had never seen a bat outside of a zoo, and I was fascinated. I’ve often wondered what it would be like to live upside down, and to see not with your eyes but with your nose and ears. It was amazing to see this creature up close.

2) Grief. It was gut-wrenching to see this animal suffering. His broken wing was glued to the ground so he couldn’t move.

3) Responsibility. Because I was the one who found him, it was up to me to deal with him. I had no idea what to do next. Part of me wanted a neighborhood cat to come along and solve the problem for me.
So I did what most people do these days when they don’t know what to do. I Googled it.

I learned that the Ottawa Humane Society is the organization to go to if you find injured or sick wildlife. (

I also learned that you should never touch bats. Bats that are sick can also infect humans. Oops. (

It was a relief to call the professionals. I was asked to put a recycling box over the bat to contain him. They would do the rest.

Forty-five minutes later a Humane Society van was leaving my driveway with the injured bat. He was no longer my responsibility.

As I watched them drive away, I thought about how we humans generally interact with urban wildlife. It is amazing how many animals live in cities without us ever seeing them. I’m always surprised how seldom I see rats, mice and raccoons. This is either because they are nocturnal, or very good at hiding.

It seems we only encounter these animals when they are dead on the side of the road or living somewhere we don’t want them to live, like in our attic. As a result, we mainly see them as pests and nuisances, albeit cute ones. Which is unfortunate. They are so much more than that. Raccoons and rats are amazingly intelligent, persistent and curious, qualities we admire in other humans. However, our expectation that urban homes are free of animals often brings us into conflict with them. It would be nice to see more public education about urban wildlife, so that an animal control website isn’t the first place we learn about our four-legged neighbors.

Learning to talk science

My name is Amelia, and I am a recent university graduate gazing at the world work and wondering where I will fit best. My training is in biology and anthropology,and I have recently become interested in how these two fields intersect. I am also interested in communicating science to non-scientists in ways that are both accessible and provide useful information. Communication skills were largely glossed over in my biology degree, so I am hoping that this blog will help me practice writing about science. This is also my first time blogging, so I expect it to be a learning process.  Image

Oh, and I’m also an artist, which would explain why I’m sitting next to examples of my artwork in this picture. I’m sure my artwork will find a way to sneak into this blog too.

The title of this blog “lab bench to park bench” links scientific research to things we see every day and take for granted, like park benches. I hope to demonstrate that these worlds are not separate, but overlap in wild and wondrous ways.

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April 2014


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