Word recognition for the birds

After years of talking to our bird visitors they are now reacting to a particular word

Robin at the readyRobin in residence

This is the fourth year that the resident robin (Erithacus rubecula) has been visiting us and every day, we still use the same routine as we always have done and start by saying 'Hello robin, do you want some worms?'. There follows the usual sequence of events as the robin flits quickly from one perch to another, coming to rest on the work bench in the garage where the mealworm pot is kept and waiting for its worm treat. 


Blackbird regulars

For the male blackbird (Turdus merula), it's the second year. He's pretty much a daily visitor, sometimes coming as many as three times a day, though there are days when we don't see him at all. He likes his mealworms too, but he doesn't come into the garage, preferring to stand on the threshold and eat there. We use the same words with him as well. The female isn't as frequent a visitor but, when she does, he defers to her and she eats first. It happens rarely, but the look he gets from her if he dares to take the last worm is priceless. He'll step forward and snatch it and she'll glare at him like he's just delivered the most offensive insult you could imagine. 

Word training

Lady blackbird insists on being first to eat

As we feed the birds, we talk to them and they've become used to the sound of our voices. Looking at how these birds react to what we say, I think it's possible that both the robin and the male blackbird have learned the word 'worm'.

The robin started reacting first, about a year ago. Karl told me that it had tweeted at him when he asked if it wanted worms, though we nearly always get a quick bob on the mention of worms. I got a big reaction when I went out to the woodshed recently. I was reaching in for some wood when the robin landed on a piece of wood a few inches from my head and sat watching me. I made the usual greeting and for each of the three times I said 'worms' it fluttered its wings for a couple of seconds and then followed me straight to the worm pot. 

The blackbird isn't as bold and generally waits to be noticed from a short distance, often sitting the roof of the other shed. When I turn and invite him to come and have some worms, he looks up alertly and then runs across the shed roof before swooping down to the ground at my feet. Today I went out and called to him where he was sitting on the garage roof and he too fluttered his wings at each mention of 'worms'

Bright birds

It's said that wild parrots in Australia are learning phrases learned from escapee parrots, whilst starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) in the UK are known for being gifted mimics, so it doesn't surprise me that the birds now recognise the word 'worms'. Teaching the birds the melody to Beethoven's 'Ode to Joy' by whilstling it daily, as Karl would like to do, might be too much but it is heartening to see that the birds appear to recognise something said to them. 

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Please note: the contents of this blog reflect the views of its author, which are not necessarily those of the RHS. 

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