Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University







The Early Bird Gets the Worm

Spring is a wonderful time of the year. Flowers bloom, farmers and gardeners till the soil, and birds break into song. But, if there is one thing that is a true harbinger of spring, it is the presence of robins hopping on the lawn.

These red-breasted birds really aren't robins. They're actually larks! At least, this is what ornithologists -- specialists in feather-covered animals -- tell us. I'm not sure it makes a lot of difference, but the bird has been misnamed for a lot of years -- apparently since the time of the Pilgrims. You see, the first European settlers to our shores noticed these little birds hopping around and dubbed them robin red breasts. And we still incorrectly call them that today.

Birds weren't the only things to get misnamed by the early settlers. So did people and plants. Native Americans ended up being called Indians, even though their homeland wasn't India. The major crop being grown by the Native Americans was new to Europeans. We know the crop today as corn. The plant was unknown to Europeans, so they gave it the name corn, a word used for cereal grains in Europe.

Misnaming aside, the bird with the red breast is the creature I think of when I hear the saying, "the early bird gets the worm." This is an oft-repeated ditty extolling the virtues of being first. That's obviously from the perspective of the bird. The worm, on the other hand, might have a slightly different view.

The worm associated with the early bird is almost always depicted as an earthworm. What cartoonist hasn't drawn a picture of the bird with the red breast pulling a worm from the ground? But the word worm isn't just used for earthworms.

Worm is sometimes used to describe caterpillars of butterflies and moths. For example, people will say they found worms in the cabbage or broccoli. Almost always such a worm is the caterpillar of a cabbage butterfly. A worm in an apple might be a codling moth caterpillar, a plum curculio grub or a fly maggot.

Fly maggots infesting a dead animal carcass are also called worms. It was no doubt fly maggots feeding on a carcass that inspired the children's chant that I remember well.

"The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out,
The worms play pinochle on your snout,
Your eyes fall in, your teeth fall out,
Your brain turns into old sauerkraut."

All of which leaves us with the not-so-pleasant thought that ultimately we are all just food for fly maggots. Or in the words of William Shakespeare, "worms meat."

As originally used, the word worm, based on the Latin vermis, described a pest of any sort. In the early days, earthworms were considered pests. People even thought they destroyed crops. Today, we know that earthworms aren't pests, unless you consider dead ones on the patio less than desirable. Earthworms are essential to the health of our soil, so they are beneficial organisms.

So what exactly are earthworms, which, no doubt, are the worms that the early bird catches? They are scientifically classified as Annelids - segmented soft-bodied worms. There are about 3,400 species of earthworms. A cubic meter of soil can contain up to 400 of these creatures.

So how does the early bird catch the worm? The bird has sharp ears and eyes so sight and sound are used to spy the victim. Once the bird has the worm in its beak, it exerts a steady pull until the earthworm can no longer hold to the sides of the soil burrow in which it lives.

In an old comedy routine, the question came up relative to the early bird getting the worm: Why was the worm there in the first place? A good question, but one without a scientific answer. We know earthworms move around in response to water or vibration of the soil. So the April showers that bring May flowers also provide the early birds with a lot of worms.


Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox