Rick Bausman, the well-known Island musician, will not be the only one diligently drumming this spring. His penchant for percussion is shared by other creatures that have their own rhyme and reasons for rhythm.
While Rick drums for fun, wildlife drums for food. Woodpeckers may be the first bird to spring to mind as tapping tricksters, yet there are other animals that drum the dirt rather than the trees for their treat. Pounding the ground causes vibrations that bring earthworms to the surface.
It is not only the early bird that gets the worm. Birds that drum can be very successful too. American woodcock, American robins, thrushes and gulls will dance, stomp, or otherwise thump the earth’s surface with their feet and sometimes their wings trying to raise worms from below. To get their sumptuous snack, these birds must truly “hit the ground running.”
There are a few theories why earthworms respond to this small seismic disturbance. One theory suggests that drumming causes vibrations similar to rain hitting the ground surface. During dry conditions, earthworms are lower in the soil, where it is not as parched. When the rains come, worms go to the surface for the moisture and to avoid drowning in saturated soils.
Charles Darwin studied this behavioral response in earthworms and had another theory. He stated that “It has often been said that if the ground is beaten or otherwise made to tremble, worms believe that they are pursued by a mole and leave their burrows.” This method doesn’t always work, though. Darwin continued, “worms do not invariably leave their burrows when the ground is made to tremble, as I know from having beaten it with a spade, but perhaps it was beaten too violently.”
If the image of the iconic scientist whacking the ground with a spade appears incongruous, consider that he had great respect for earthworms. He devoted his final book entirely to the study of them and what effect they had on the surface of the earth. In almost the last sentences of the last paragraph of his last book, Darwin wrote: “Long before [humans] existed the land was in fact regularly ploughed, and still continues to be thus ploughed by earthworms. It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world as have these lowly organized creatures.”
Birds and naturalists are not the only animals to beat the ground to entice worms to the surface. Wood turtles are also known to tap the terrain in search of dinner.
When people partake in worm drumming, the practice is termed earthworm raising, fiddling, charming or grunting. And it is usually done for fishing or for fun.
Consider the World Worm Charming Competition in Crosskey, England, where contenders often vie for more than just the championship; they seek the world record. Tom Shufflebotham was the reigning world record holder from 1980 until he was unseated by a 10-year-old girl. Sophie Smith of Willaston, England, bested his record of 511 worms raised in a half hour by charming 567 worms to the surface! All of this on a 3 meter by 3 meter patch of land with no liquid or digging allowed. Even worm charming has rules.
Humans’ methods of grunting worms vary, though charmers most commonly use twanging forks or sticks stuck in the ground that are hit or rubbed to cause vibrations.
In the United States, Florida is the state best known for its grunting. In Apalachicola, more than 700 permits are issued annually by the National Forest Service to earthworm fiddlers. But it is in Sopchoppy, Fla., that the king and queen earthworm grunters are crowned during the American Worm Gruntin’ Festival.
It is perhaps an honor to be thus crowned, and I’m sure that I would be charmed to meet such royalty. (I certainly wouldn’t be grunting.) They may not know it, but they themselves are in the presence of a sort of royalty of the inverterbrate world. As Stephen Jay Gould wrote, “Polychaetes, the major marine component of the phylum Annelida (including earthworms on land), represent one of life’s great success stories” consisting of 87 families, 1,000 genera, and some 8,000 species.
So while grunters may be busy drumming up business, they are also drumming (consciously or not) in celebration of a very, very successful and ubiquitous form of life. And, though I haven’t asked Rick Bausman the question, isn’t that what drummers always do?
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.