Are Early Birds Really Better Off?

A study of woodland species found that eating later in the day might lead to a longer lifespan.

This audio story is brought to you by BirdNote, a partner of the National Audubon Society. BirdNote episodes air daily on public radio stations nationwide.


This is BirdNote! 

We’ve all heard about the “early bird” getting the “worm.” We know it as sound advice about initiative and timely action. And we can almost see that robin leaning back and tugging that recalcitrant worm out of the ground. Research shows, however, that birds dining early and heavily may lower their life expectancy. A study of three North American woodland bird species found that socially dominant birds stay lean during the day and then stoke up when it’s most important – later in the day, before a cold night. At night, birds avoid hypothermia by metabolizing fat. And by staying lean through most of the day, dominant birds are more agile in avoiding predators. 

Subordinate birds have to look for food whenever and wherever they can find it, and carry fat on their bodies to hedge against unpredictable rations. Dominant birds, which can push subordinates off food, can choose when they eat and so lessen their odds of being eaten themselves.

Therefore, at least in the woodland bird’s world, the revised moral might read: “Get the worm late in the day – you’ll sleep better and live longer.” 

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Narrator: Michael Stein

Call of the American Robin provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York.

Recorded by W.L. Hershberger

Producer: John Kessler

Executive Producer: Chris Peterson

© 2015 Tune In to Nature.org     January 2015/2018     

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