Phenology: Monarch Butterfly, Gardening, Farming

(This was written on November 13, originally scheduled for November 15; it’s been separated into two posts due to length, and will have to appear on November 16 and 17, due to drama at the Cat Sanctuary on November 14 and 15.)

Not last night, but the night before, rain washed most of the leaves off most of the trees. The predominant color of the hills is now drab, with a few lingering patches of oak, beech, pine, or cedar. Nevertheless, we’ve had only one or two brief dips below the freezing mark, and insects remain active. One of the spring kittens managed to pick up a dog tick last week.

And yesterday I saw a monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus. This is one of the best known and best loved butterflies on Earth…

(Credit: “Monarch In May” by Kenneth Dwain Harrelson. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – )

They’re popular because they tour. The one I saw was heading south for the winter, and may come back in the early spring, when milkweed begins to sprout. The female Monarch is restless in spring, and lays only one or two eggs on each milkweed plant. On a quiet day you can hear her wings flap as she flits from plant to plant. Monarch caterpillars eat nothing but milkweed; more than one or two of them might kill their host plant. When they reach their full size, which can be a little over two inches long, the caterpillars often look for a plant other than milkweed on which to hide while they rest and turn into butterflies.

They spend ten or fifteen days pupating, during which they don’t spin cocoons and are visible but don’t look like living animals, and then emerge–as adolescents. Monarch butterflies reach full maturity only when they’re ready to reproduce. In summer this takes four or five days; for the alternate generation, who hatch in winter, it takes the whole winter season.

For hundreds if not thousands of years, monarch butterfly populations were stable. The species became threatened only recently. Efforts have been made to rebuild population levels…

However, the species has been severely threatened by humans’ abuse of chemicals. Monarch butterflies are harmless to plants humans can eat, but they’re vulnerable to poison spray.

Despite the science fiction in the novel Flight Behavior, monarchs are not seriously believed to be endangered by global warming…although, if some of the global warming scenarios scientists have projected were to come true, they would be. The butterflies are most seriously endangered by herbicides that are sprayed, or drift on the wind, onto their host plant milkweed. They are also vulnerable to insecticides, although they tend to scatter themselves widely enough that population levels were not threatened by insecticides alone.

Are the “organic pesticides” discussed below really more toxic than glyphosate or DDT or whatever? Depends on the concentration in which they’re used; water could be “more toxic than DDT” if we’re talking about a trace of DDT on the peel of a peeled apple versus enough water to drown in. Thing is, if you really get into sustainable organic farming or gardening, the “organic pesticides” are going to be like that rifle I didn’t actually buy, last summer, for the purpose of killing a nuisance animal–you don’t even think about them every year. I’ve recommended the oil-and-vinegar treatment for poison ivy, but do I myself use it? No; I dig up my own poison ivy by the roots, which is a better option I’ve recommended for long-term poison ivy control. Another good option is owning (or renting) a goat; they can become lovable pets, and they eat poison ivy.

(More about sustainable farming and gardening forthcoming…)



Phenology: Blue Jay

The most noticeable life form in Kingsport these days is some sort of pathogenic microorganism. I’ve not learned yet whether it’s a virus or bacterial infection, but it has been going around. Most people seem to be “under the weather.” Some people are coughing. A few people, not necessarily even older people, have developed bronchitis and break out with horrific, painful-sounding coughs in public.

Last week Grandma Bonnie Peters’ near-professional-quality voice “broke” and she went around sounding like Tallulah Bankhead, or maybe even like Odetta, in between the coughs. That was bad enough but on Sunday morning, instead of coming out to meet me, she called to say she was unfit to drive. So of course I had to walk nine miles, and since I hadn’t been walking much all summer that took four hours, and for the rest of the day I didn’t have much more energy than she had.

It is actually easier to fend off infections on an empty stomach. For dinner I had a garlic clove. For breakfast this morning I had a garlic clove and saltwater. For lunch I had another garlic clove, saltwater, and an orange. I feel almost normal now.

GBP is still coughing. She has a lot of friends and a few patients in Kingsport, and sings in the choirs of two different churches. Of course she just loved missing both church services and not talking to her friends, even on the phone…NOT!

But anyway we have been back to the Cat Sanctuary and observed some birds and flowers. Flowers include out-of-season crown vetch, honeysuckle, and daisies, and more typical goldenrod, thistles, and asters. Birds include cardinals, mockingbirds, and a blue jay, Cyanocitta cristata.

Blue jays used to be very common and very easy to observe. They are often classified as songbirds, but they’re bigger than most songbirds, their squawks of “Jay! Jay!” (or perhaps “Thief! Thief!”) aren’t very musical, and in some other ways they seem more closely related to crows than to sparrows or warblers. One of the ways jays resemble crows is their susceptibility to West Nile virus. Jays and crows have not become endangered species, but there aren’t nearly as many of them as there used to be.

When they’re not bullying songbirds or raiding gardens, blue jays are attractive birds. Here’s a picture from Wikipedia, photographed by Saforrest and widely copied:

File:Blue Jay with Peanut.jpg

The blue color is an effect of the way the feathers react to light. Jays look bright blue in bright light, pale bluish grey in softer light.

Here’s a gallery of 24 different, cute pictures of blue jays. The crest feathers can stand up or smooth down behind the head depending on the bird’s mood; the body feathers can be fluffed out for warmth.

All jays have crests, but at the bottom of this page about odd-looking birds is a mutant blue jay with quite an amazing crest:

Jay called “Papa Smurf”

As shown in the picture, jays like nuts and use their long beaks to shell large nuts. They may hoard nuts in a hollow tree for future use, like squirrels. They are omnivores and also eat fruit and insects. If you don’t mind attracting jays to a bird feeder, offer peanuts and sunflower seeds. If you live near an oak tree, you will probably see blue jays, since they love acorns.

Like crows and cormorants, blue jays are curious and may pick up any kind of shiny or colorful little object they can carry, just to play with it. They have been known to steal earrings, although, for their purposes, bottle caps would be as good as jewels, or better. Though not as intelligent as crows, they seem cleverer than most songbirds; in cages, jays have been known to figure out how to use sticks or bits of paper to retrieve food, or even unlock the cage door. They also use paper, string, cloth, yarn, and ribbon to decorate their nests.

Blue jays are bold, especially in groups. They sometimes attack hawks, owls, cats, even dogs or humans, with the intention of chasing them off the jays’ territory. Successful gangs of jays have been reported to kill and eat bird-eating bats. Nevertheless, jays bully songbirds enough that songbirds seldom seem to welcome jays into flocks, even the mixed flocks that travel together in winter.

Some people claim to have taught jays to imitate human speech. I’ve never seen that in real life, but I have seen jays imitate red-tailed hawk noises to startle chickens. They can make several different noises, not all of which even sound loud and angry. If reading this on an audio-enhanced computer, you can listen to recordings of more than a dozen sounds blue jays make here:

Blue jays are found in the Eastern States. A larger, darker bird called Steller jays take their ecological place further west. Blue jays and Steller jays are usually considered two distinct species that hybridize easily.

Phenology: Imperial Moth or Spiny Devil

The heat has broken. Overnight lows have been consistently around 60 degrees Fahrenheit, climbing back into the 70s or low 80s in the daytime.

Late summer wildflowers: jewelweed, morning glory, clover, Queen Anne’s Lace, thistles, a few defiant out-of-season blooms on Crown Vetch, ragweed, goldenrod, bedstraw, Black-Eyed Susans, coneflowers. Mimosas’ yellow seed pods, almost as pretty as their pink and white flowers.

What’s delayed this post has been making the time to look up an unusual caterpillar I saw in the road on August 30. It was a sort of mocha or even pale persimmon color, two and a half or maybe three inches long, with two pairs of horns on the segments immediately behind its head and a pair of smaller bristles on each segments behind those. The skin showed a stubble of white hairs at close range, but it was not a “hairy” caterpillar. From a distance it looked a bit like a woman’s little finger. The size and the two pairs of horns showed that it was one of the big silk moths, but which one? Books, other than Paul Villard’s, show pictures of adult moths and usually ignore the caterpillars. Looking up any plant or animal online is a slow, tedious process. I finally did it and, after looking at, have tentatively identified the caterpillar as an earlier stage of Eacles imperialis…possibly a distant relative of the strangest “pet” I’ve ever had.

Some of the big silk moths, like those buck moths that have become a hub at the Blogspot, are described as “variable.” They can have any of several different color patterns and still be recognized by other moths as part of the same species. Eacles has been described as the most variable of all. Caterpillars have green and brown “color morphs.” Moths are very large; females are generally bigger than males, with considerable overlap; individual wingspreads have been measured from three to almost seven inches (8-17.4 cm). All Eacles are gaudy, with a color scheme that may make them look like autumn leaves to predators, although they fly while nearly all the real leaves are fresh and green. Males generally have more brown and females more yellow on their wings. The brown spots are not your usual dull, dead-leaf brown, but a designer-type shade that some writers call purple. Patterns of spots vary.

(Vaguely face-like patterns of spots on the backs of these moths are not uncommon: )

Eacles seem completely unprejudiced about size and color. They aren’t very common; what keeps them from becoming pests is that many individuals never find mates, and those lucky enough to find mates seem to appreciate any member of their species they find. The moths aren’t equipped to travel far. Their homebody instincts lead them to return to the same place to rest during the day and, if they’ve found a mate, to snuggle all day. Though the moths probably don’t perceive or recognize humans in any way humans or our pets would understand, their instinct to follow their own scent to “home” can make them seem like loyal pets. After mating the female uses up her physical resources distributing relatively few eggs as widely as possible. Like the other big silk moths, they don’t eat and live less than a week, aging visibly every day.

Youtube videographer Chris Egnoto seems to be trying to get his personal moth to fly on camera. The moth stays put. Before we see the moth, we see the caterpillar crawling around on the arm of a man who’s suppressed the normal human reflex to avoid contact with insects, a throwback to some ancestor who was probably nibbled to death by driver ants while sleeping in the jungle. Anyway the video shows how clumsy the caterpillars are. What look like eyes are more like a helmet design on the back of the head; the caterpillar turns its small, inconspicuous working eyes toward the camera for a moment, probably gives up trying to see the camera, and resumes exploring the guy’s arm, which it can see. (A study of caterpillars’ vision found them to be severely nearsighted; if they were U.S. citizens they could get disability pensions as being “legally blind,” unable to see clearly three feet ahead. They can see the difference between bark or other surfaces and leaves, as they walk on them.)

The silk moth family that includes Eacles and Citheronia are too big to hide and seem to rely on an in-your-face, touch-me-if-you-dare defensive system. Further south, where even bigger moths and butterflies are common, the garish color schemes of these moths might be less adaptive. In North America they have a “What is that thing?” effect on humans and, presumably, on bats and birds. Cats leave the caterpillars alone, but the caterpillars are active in late summer, in between nut crops, and squirrels often eat them.

The caterpillars seem to mimic a family of spiky, inedible little lizards that aren’t actually found in the Eastern States, and share the lizards’ nickname of “devils.” It’s unfair since, despite their prickliness and ability to chomp, these caterpillars are downright lovable compared with the “stingingworms” that grow up to be a slightly smaller family of big silk moths. People are always picking them up and posing for snapshots, showing both how big and how harmless these “horned devils” are.

Newly hatched Eacles have the horns so long, in proportion to the hatchlings’ size, you wonder how they can walk around with such a burden. OlderĀ caterpillars seem to sacrifice show-off value for practicality, and have horns and prickles long enough to be noticeable, but not long enough to get in the way as the animals waddle about. (“Waddle” is the word. Silk moth caterpillars push the limits of body bulk in proportion to foot size, and are often found on the ground below trees out of which they fall when they lose their balance.) has a photo collection showing the range of sizes, shapes, and colors. The one I found was the brown version of the modest-looking green caterpillar near the bottom of the page.

This one has orange-yellow horns and hairs long enough to be described as hair, while mine had black horns and stubble. As a bonus, at the bottom of the page is a link to Professor Raupp’s story about the moth that provided Ronia’s screen name.

Image from Puravida at Morguefile: