BEING AWARE OF NATURAL SURROUNDINGS BRINGS GREAT PLEASURE
This week's guest column, by my sister's neighbor Donna Boles, is particularly timely. For the last two weeks I've been writing about the perceived increase in wildlife in suburban neighborhoods. Donna's recent experiences in Tuscaloosa, Ala., seem to prove the point.
"Which would you rather have, parsley or swallowtails? I like both, but I'd pick the butterflies every time. I've been an amateur lepidopterist most of my life. I was only five when I caught a zebra swallowtail, a rare species in southern Indiana. After that I was hooked on butterflies and moths, often raising them from eggs that I found around the neighborhood or that were given to me by biology students at the local university. Family and friends came over to check growing caterpillars, later admiring the beautiful chrysalides or cocoons and, if they were lucky, the emerging butterflies or moths.
"I remember well the day my 16 luna moths hatched and then crawled up the breakfast room curtains to unfurl their long tails, depositing a bit of yellow liquid on the Irish lace curtains as their bodies pulsed with the effort of metamorphosing. I kept two for my collection and released the rest. It was a magic day.
"I had another magic day this week. Going out early to get the newspaper, I heard and then saw a family of red-headed woodpeckers having breakfast. I heard a new sound amid the ruckus and attributed it to the juvenile woodpecker. But no. The bird atop the light pole held a screaming cicada in its mouth. That bug did not go quietly.
"Walking out to my back deck, I noticed a small pile of wood chips under the bench that borders the deck. I had seen chips before, but hadn't thought much about it. This time I decided to investigate. Going down into the yard to look at the underside of the bench, I saw that one, but only one, of the seat supports had been gnawed for about 18 inches. I understand that squirrels' incisors grow throughout life and are kept short through continuous gnawing, but I don't think a squirrel is my midnight chomper. Clearly, some nocturnal study is called for.
"While on the deck, I checked my parsley plant. A few days before, I had set it on a table inlaid with a butterfly mosaic in the romantic hope that it might help attract butterflies. I was ecstatic to see 13 black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) caterpillars--the species I was trying to attract! Most of the yellow, green, and black caterpillars were about an inch long, and they were gobbling up parsley at a rapid rate. They had already eaten half the plant. Judging from their size, I realized they would be eating for awhile longer.
Caterpillars are very particular foodies that eat only specific plants. Two years ago when I had the same kind of caterpillars, I asked a neighbor if she had any parsley to feed my caterpillars. She looked at me askance and said she killed them when they got on her parsley. She and I clearly have different priorities. That time I went to the grocery and bought fresh-cut parsley, but my "cats" wouldn't eat it. I think that batch had an unhappy ending.
"This time I went to the local hardware store. To my delight, it was having a closeout on parsley plants, so I bought them all. A couple of my caterpillars had reached the end of their stems by then, having eaten everything along the way. They might have crawled to the new plants unassisted, but I wanted to be sure they made it. One at a time, I picked them off to move them. Unlike the woodpecker's breakfast-time cicada, they were silent. Nonetheless they have their own defensive mechanism. Golden stinkhorns (technically, osmeteria) emerged from their heads and they squirted me with yellow liquid. Despite their fierce display, I was not deterred. I placed them on the new plants, which they immediately began eating.
I'm lucky, neither the birds nor my nocturnal deck-chewer will decide
to dine on caterpillars, and in a few weeks I will have beautiful black
swallowtails in my yard. They will certainly be worth the parsley sacrifice."
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