DEAR JOAN: Yesterday afternoon I blew the leaves off the lawn and garden in my backyard, leaving a lot of bare soil showing. A couple of hours later, I happened to look outside and to my wondering eyes there appeared a dozen beautiful little robins, pecking away all over the yard.

I must have unearthed grubs or something edible, but how did they know that? They stayed an hour, then took off together. What a delight.

Earlier in the week I awoke at 3 a.m. to the smell of a skunk in my front yard. I live in a neighborhood of small houses, all with the fenced yards. I never cease to wonder how these wild creatures manage to get around and find food.

Dorothy Rich

Bay Area

DEAR DOROTHY: Birds have such supercharged metabolisms that when they are active, they pretty much have to eat constantly to maintain their energy. As a result, birds are exceptionally good at finding food.

They do this not by scent — with very few exceptions, birds have a rotten sense of smell — but by sight and sound.

As they fly and flit around, they are scoping out the landscape. They may spot a bird feeder, a bush full of berries, or a cleared patch of dirt. They may not recognize it as such, but they see the changes in the landscape and drop down to explore.

Birds have amazing little brains and memories, so the robins probably noticed something had changed in your yard, and that all that dirt was holding a feast.

Birds also listen to the calls and coos of other birds, which can tip them off about a source of food.

American robins eat a variety of foods, but they certainly love nice juicy worms, and they are most adept at finding them.

Folks used to believe the robins could hear the worms crawling about beneath the soil, but researchers have found that it’s just experience. They know where worms likely are, and they hunt them out, not unlike me and frozen yogurt shops.

As for the skunks and other critters, they too are driven by the need for food and water, and they are undeterred by urban fences.

Mating season for skunks usually begins in February, but I’m already seeing a lot of skunks out and about, and unfortunately, dead on the roads, so I think they might be getting an early start this year. Just a reminder that the males use their scent to attract females, so we will be smelling that pungent aroma a lot in the coming weeks.

Hero Dog awards

The American Humane Association, a national organization that works to improve the lives of both animals and children, has launched its annual Hero Dog awards to recognize the country’s bravest heroes on both ends of the leash.

The awards are divided into eight categories — therapy, service, law enforcement, military, arson, search and rescue, guide/hearing and “emerging hero” dogs, which pays tribute to ordinary dogs that do extraordinary things.

Winners in each category will be treated to a Los Angeles gala awards ceremony in September, where one of the finalists will be named top dog.


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