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Yesterday my teacher saw a lot of robins, between 50-100, all standing still facing the south as if at attention. They were not moving for several minutes. Can you explain this? We had some severe weather later in the day and evening that included very high winds and according to the weather maps, the storms were from the south. Is this related?
Question Date: 2004-04-19
Answer 1:

I've never seen anything like that before. It sounds really cool.

I think your teacher has a good hypothesis about it being related to the coming storm. Birds usually seek shelter before a storm so that they are not injured. We still don't know a lot about animals' ability to predict weather, but they could probably sense the changes in air pressure that come before a storm.

Why do you think there were so many robins in the same place? I'll ask my bird expert friends about this and let you know if I find out anything else.

There is a great site about robin migration at
migration It is part of the "Journey North" project that students from all over the world use to track migration. There's also a site on monarch butterflies.

Your class might be interested in participating. If you are in Santa Barbara, your monarchs and robins don't all migrate, but some will be passing through on their way to summer habitats.

Answer 2:

Sometimes on the beach I notice several sea gulls all facing the same way. When I faced the same direction, I found that the wind was in my face, so I decided maybe the seagulls liked to stand with the wind in their faces. When the wind was blowing at my face, it didn't blow my hair into my face. Maybe that works for the seagulls, too - their feathers don't get ruffled as much when the wind is in their face. That would be good for keeping them warm.

Answer 3:

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.

On the 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.

I can 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.

Your 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!

Answer 4:

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,
(3) 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 creatures.

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 speak!).

What do you think about this in reference to your robin observation - was there wind from the south when your teacher observed the birds?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 them.

Dr. Alex L.A.MiddletonDepartment of Zoology, University of Guelph. "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 environments.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 them.

In this brief article I will identify the major environmental factors to which birds are responsive and which influence many of their behaviours...."

[ 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 fascinating...]
...Barometric Pressure
"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, Gill 1995).

Also, we have observed birds' abilities to time their migratory flights in anticipation of favorable 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 conditions".

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