Do black birds listen for food or is something else happening?

I am watching the blackbird in my garden - a regular lockdown activity and I can’t help noticing the speed with which it pecks for and finds food.

I am wondering if it is listening or random pecking. If the former it would need astonishingly sophisticated auditory apparatus, and lightning speed reactions, if random pecking it would be wasting a lot of energy as one can’t be certain there will be food at every peck.

If however both of these hypotheses are incorrect and it is in fact looking and then pecking - I am wondering how it locates prey given the eyes are on the side of its head making forward-looking and locating problematic.

Any views on the feeding habits of blackbirds are appreciated.


From my experience they use sight, probably they hear movement too, and birds in general have a great sence of sound, they look by turning their heads, it’s told that birds like that have two different eyes, one looking for food, and one looking up for predators, so you can easily spot as they turn their head on the side slightly, though often they just freeze and wait, in such moments they’re using all the sences. But of course they’re not just randomly attack ground.)
I don’t have a good blackbird pic, but here’s a fieldfare where it can be seen:

Found the blackbird actually:


I’ve spent a lot of time watching our chickens… and I don’t think their strategies and capacities would differ dramatically from other birds that do at least some amount of ground feeding. It does surprise me - despite the eyes-on-the-side, they have incredible visual acuity. They can take the tiniest ant egg in a single strike. But your point about the success rate of pecks is a good one. Despite being able to see well, chickens aren’t always sure what’s food and what isn’t. So they may pick up exactly what they were aiming for, only to find out it’s unpalatable or just not food at all. And they seem to be happy to peck endlessly, so I can only assume that the energy expenditure is low enough to make it worth all those efforts to find something tasty.

And welcome to the iNat forum!


Welcome to the forums @fiona1960

Interesting questions -
Woodpeckers for sure listen – I have seen scaly-bellied woodpeckers - listening intently before starting to peck at a spot.

Am also quite amazed at how much grain foraging birds are able to pick any seed (in cases where I have seen seeds been spread on the ground and grass for them) and clean up every small morsel with nary a wasted peck. Chicken (Gallus fowl) on the other hand vary from been very good at cleaning up every grain to being a bit silly

About blackbirds and their Turdus_ relatives - many that I have seen seem to move quietly and slowly along the ground and seem to know where to pull things up - Grey-winged Blackbird, White-collared Blackbird, Mistle Thrush (all Turdus thrushes) and then have seen some like the long-billed thrush (Zoothera) flick leaves over and pull grubs / larvae / worms etc from under them – I am sure there is some randomness but also some pattern that I have not been able to discern.

Edit - Corrected some grammar and added some embellishments


Just co-incidentally some one sent me this today


Many birds have more 3D vision than it seems, so black birds may be watching for movement of small insects. I’ve always heard that American Robins listen for worms, but I don’t know if that it true or not. @wendyjegla speaking of energy expenditure, have you ever watched Chickadees? They never sit still! Even at -30C they flit through tree branches pecking and prodding at the bark. Presumably they find enough to keep themselves alive!


I’ve long wondered how it is that many birds have such good hearing given that they lack pinnae as mammals have. You can tell the mammals that rely a lot on hearing by their big ears but not so with birds.

The video
shows a Syrigma sibilatrix hunting, one can see that it turns around after hearing a prey.

how it is that many birds have such good hearing given that they lack pinnae as mammals have

in birds such as owls and harriers, it is the feathers of their facial disks that help to act as a pinna, directing sound waves to the actual ears on the sides of the heads. In owls, too, the ears are asynchronously placed on the head, one lower down and the other higher up; this helps to pinpoint the direction of the sound.


Thanks, I recall that the facial feather arrangement and “owlish” face helped with hearing in some birds including harriers. Barn Owl seems like a good example of that. Not sure if there are such adaptations for other birds.

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Cheek area of more or less all birds is covered by flat disk of feathers that leads to the ear, so you may suggest it’s working for all birds or this pattern of feather arragement would be less consistent.


I believe kakapo have large feathers around their eyes to help direct the sound - they are sometimes called ‘owl parrots’ due to the similar arrangement of feathers.


This is just an abstract, but it addresses how American Robins find food. It’s a study from 1997, so I don’t know if there are newer studies out there that challenge it.


The abstract alone provides valuable information - C and P here for others who are interested Thank you…

Birds use auditory, visual, olfactory and possibly vibrotactile cues to find prey, but vision is the predominant mode of prey detection. In a series of controlled experiments in an aviary, four American robins, Turdus migratorius found buried mealworms in the absence of visual, olfactory and vibrotactile cues, suggesting that they could use auditory cues to locate the prey. They also had significantly reduced foraging success when auditory cues were obscured by white noise. These results conflict with the only other experimental study of foraging in American robins, which concluded that they foraged using visual clues alone.


I’ve wondered about that! And will leave a full bird feeder they have all to themselves just to check out what might be edible somewhere else. I’ve actually thought this must be some fundamental forager behavior… moving away from one viable food source to other potential sources to maximize… something. Predator avoidance, nutrient variety, just-in-case-that-other-thing-is-tastier. Our goats do that too, actually. They’ll leave a delicious shrub for no good reason just to check out that other shrub. There’s bound to be some research on this! :-)


My own personal theory is that Chickadees evolved that behaviour because they are the ‘smallest kids on the block’. Better to grab some food and go away than to get none at all. But I have absolutely no data to back that up!!

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I had to double check which bird you were calling a “black bird”. In North America we have a group of mostly black birds we call “blackbirds”, that are in a different family (Icteridae) from the European Blackbird in the genus Turdus (subfamily Turdinae, in the Thrush Family Muscicapidae). Checking a map in New Zealand for Turdus, I found that the European Blackbird is a common introduced species there. In North America Turdus migratorius - the American Robin is among our most common birds, and is adapted to suburban habitat with lawns, where they forage for earthworms. I’ve often seen them turn their heads to one side, suggesting they are listening, before they peck the soil, in the lawn, and pull up a worm.

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The bird I am calling blackbird is infact a species of thrush. The feminist in me notes that only the males are black and how wrong can it be to call the species after the colour of the male. (The female is brown).

So … I think I will move to the latin name - merula.


Interesting question. I see that you’ve now indicated the bird is a thrush. I used bing to search by “sense of hearing in Turdidae” and found an article about how kiwi use their sense of hearing to forage and it alludes to thrushes doing the same.


You have the option to edit your title (a pen icon at the corner of your title), so if you prefer, you could edit the title to “Does Turdus merula (European Blackbird) listen…”, or you could skip including the English name, at the expense of many more readers recognizing which species you are talking about.