Your question is a great one, but very different
to answer. Don't be surprised if you get a
different answer from everyone you ask.
one hand, it's entirely possible that the robins
were affected by the storm in some way. Scientists
know very little about how birds perceive things,
and how their brains interpret what they perceive.
Some of the things we do know are very impressive,
though! Vultures can smell a dead animal from
thousands of feet in the air, for example, even
with winds blowing. Pigeons flying at thousands of
feet high can detect changes in their altitude as
small as a few inches! So maybe the robins could
tell there was a storm there.
On the other
hand, it's hard to imagine why they would stand
and stare at the storm. If they were alarmed by
it, I'd expect them to look for some shelter to
protect themselves, or maybe eat as much as they
could before the bad weather arrived.
think of two reasons why it's very difficult to
interpret this kind of observation. One reason is
that there are so many unknown things that might
be going on. Maybe a cat was lurking in the bushes
to the south, maybe they heard some noise that you
couldn't hear, etc. The other reason is that
there's no way to set up a situation to test your
ideas about it. Even if you had a lot of birds in
a cage, and you could show them different things
and see how they reacted, just keeping them in the
cage probably changes their behavior.
observation is impressive, though, and it's great
that you made the connection between the birds and
the storm. That's the first step in asking
important scientific questions!
That's a lot of robins to see at the same time -
truly an amazing observation!
I would encourage
you and your teacher to start keeping a journal of
bird observations like these. Writen down (1)
date, (2) time, (2) weather conditions (wind
speed, wind direction, barometric pressure, cloud
cover, and anything else you can think of that
might affect wildlife), and (4) what your
observations are in detail - this is what
professional research scientists and bird watchers
do in order to learn more about these amazing
Believe it or not, scientists still
do not know exactly how migratory birds are able
to navigate thousands of miles from winter to
summer feeding grounds each year. Check out the
web references I found below for some ideas to
answer your question.
Also, since I live near
the Pacific Ocean in Monterey, CA, I often have
the chance to observe seagulls, pelicans,
shorebirds, cormorants, and grebes in windy
conditions and changing weather (we get lots of
fog and sun and wind!). They typically sit facing
into the wind (beak first, so to speak!), and I
have heard people say this is because they want to
keep their feathers from getting ruffled (which
would more assuredly happen if they faced away
from the direction of the wind (talk first, so to
What do you think about this in
reference to your robin observation - was there
wind from the south when your teacher observed the
Best of luck with your avian research
and nature observations - we need good
observationists who can question what they see,
hear, smell, taste, and feel around
Sensory Awareness in Birds
Dr. Alex L.A.
MiddletonDepartment of Zoology, University of
"As human beings we are often amazed
at the sensory capabilities of wild creatures.
This amazement, I suggest, is related to our
increasing environmental isolation. For example,
most of us no longer have to worry about the
changing seasons because we live in dwellings that
provide artificial light, warmth, shelter, and
security.Neither do we have to worry about the
impact of weather on our survival because the
necessities for our daily existence can be
obtained from the closest shops. In a sense, most
human beings now live in an artificial world.
As we have become more distantly removed from
our natural environments the sensory awareness
upon which our lives once depended has become
dulled, even though the impact of environmental
factors is as real as ever, e.g. atmospheric
pressure and human well-being. By contrast, wild
animals are profoundly responsive to their
Their activities are dictated by
the natural rhythms of light and dark, heat and
cold, and wet or dry. They are bombarded daily
with environmental information the interpretation
of which is vital to their survival as they search
for food, avoid predators, and cope with the
changing seasons. Therefore, it should come as no
surprise that animals are finely tuned to their
environments and show remarkable sensitivity to
In this brief article I will identify the
major environmental factors to which birds are
responsive and which influence many of their
[ Dr. Middleton goes on to
discuss birds ability to sense day length,
positions of sun and stars, polarized light, UV
light, sound, magnetism, olfactory signals
(smells), and rainfall.
I have only copied
the section on barometric pressure, but the other
paragraphs are equally as
"Awareness of changing barometric
pressure is probably an ancient attribute of most
animals. We have long recognized that birds often
feed actively to build up their energy reserves in
anticipation of pending storms (Middleton 1982,
Also, we have observed birds'
abilities to time their migratory flights in
anticipation of favourable weather conditions. In
both cases the mounting evidence suggests that
these behavioral responses are precipitated by
changing barometric pressure.
Few birds have
been extensively tested for their ability to
respond to changing barometric pressure, but such
sensitivity has been proved in homing pigeons
(Alerstam 1990, Gill 1995). Based on
circumstantial evidence, the supposition is that
many other species must show similar sensitivity.
That being the case, it would explain why migrant
birds are expert weather forecasters and why, once
aloft,can adjust their altitude to take advantage
of the most favorable atmospheric
"Barometers are great tools for
letting you know the air pressure is dropping and
a storm's on-the way. But they're not the only way
to make predictions.
Hi I'm Dave Thurlow
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