Chapter 37: Of Caterpillars and Birds

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–The Goldfinch is a splash of brilliant yellow against the white snow and brown earth.–

The ant hill is the sign of a delicate and sophisticated society, mostly unseen for its largely underground order.  The individual ant is tiny but far from delicate.  It is both formidable worker and fearsome enemy, taking on burdens and adversaries many times its size.  Yet its civilization is vulnerable to destruction by the careless shuffle of a shoe.

* * *

Every year we find Tomato Hornworms on our tomato plants.  The surest worm signs are bare branches, stripped of leaves, and large, barrel-shaped droppings.  When I find a fat caterpillar, I always call the children over to see.  Because of their tomato-leaf-green color and subtle markings, the hornworms are very difficult to see, even though they grow fatter and longer than my index finger.  Tracking them by dung and denuded branch is the quickest way to find them.

My grandfather Wallace, a part-time tomato farmer, detested these pests and hunted them doggedly.  Not needing to make a living from my tomatoes, I can afford to not mind a bare twig here and there.  In my garden, a bare branch is an occasion for excitement: a hornworm hides nearby.  The hornworms, earning their name from the stiff pointed horn on their tail end, don’t eat the tomatoes.  The children think the “callerpittars” are amazing, otherworldly creatures.  John (3) bravely held one in his open palm for a moment, then suddenly exclaimed, “He loves me!”

Unlike many moth and butterfly larvae, tomato hornworms dig into the earth to pupate.  They lie in the ground all Winter long and emerge in the Spring as tomato hornworm Hawk Moths.  Finding a hornworm, I have the children help me to prepare a shoe box with about two inches of loose, moist soil in the bottom.  We feed the caterpillars tomato leaves until their swelling, green bodies disappear to become dark-brown pupae in the soil.  We leave the box outside in a sheltered spot (where the cats won’t dig).  Occasionally we drip a little water on the soil to keep it from totally drying out.  In Spring, with the appearance of the first flowers, we put the box where it can warm in the sunlight, and we watch every day for the hawk moth to emerge.  To escape its pupa shell, the moth emits a liquid substance that dissolves a hole in the shell.  The new moth crawls out and spreads its wet, wrinkled wings and vibrates them rapidly in the sun’s warmth.  The vibrations pump blood from the moth’s body into the wing veins, causing them to spread open and smooth.  The wings quickly dry.  If this procedure is not completed successfully, the moth will never fly.

Hawk moths flit from flower to flower, sometimes chasing each other.  Their wings beat so fast that you see only the vague blur of wings.  The large moths look much like small Hummingbirds, and also enjoy the name Hummingbird Moth.  They feed while flying, like Hummingbirds, uncoiling their long, tubular, hollow proboscis to suck nectar from flowers.  Tomato hornworm moths are particularly striking, with soft red bands on their underwings.

We found a Hummingbird Moth floating in the children’s little wading pool.  We thought for sure that it was dead.  Putting a hand under it and lifting it from the cold water, I found that it moved its legs weakly.  We placed it on the sidewalk in full sunlight.  After a few moments, its wings dried and began to vibrate, circulating blood through the wing veins and warming the body.  The moth was a miniature, self-contained solar heating unit.  It suddenly rose from the sidewalk and flew away in search of nourishment.  We felt a hint of happiness at helping to revivify the moth.

I once gave a large Tomato Hornworm larvae, and a box with soil, to my nephew, Thomas (3).  Months later, he reported to me sadly that his moth had hatched.  Asking him why he was unhappy, he said, “I like the moth, but I miss my caterpillar.”

* * *

The children came running to me with alarm in their faces.

“A hummingbird . . . in the garage!” they gasped, trying to catch their breath.  Following them, I found the double-door up, the garage entirely open, yet the Black-chinned Hummingbird confounded and trapped inside.  Apparently, its instincts drove the tiny bird to fly always upward.  It buzzed around the garage with its beak to the ceiling, and could not see the obvious way out.  It stopped frequently to rest on the highest object it could find.  The bird looked at us nervously as we paced around the garage, but still could not discern the way to freedom.

I could see the hummingbird’s fatigue and hoped that, if I could catch it, it would have sufficient strength to fly away to find food and not fall easy prey to an opportunist cat.  I grabbed the long-handled butterfly net that stood in the corner of the garage.  The net was new enough to have survived active children chasing chickens and cats with it.  I raised the net and cautiously approached the hummingbird.  It jumped from its perch and flew to another resting place.  I quickly followed.  After repeating this for several minutes, I began to get a sense of its evasion pattern, remembering my old butterfly catching days.  Anticipating its next jump, I swung the net ahead of the bird, flipped the net to prevent the bird’s escape, and brought the net quickly but carefully to the cement floor.

Reaching my hand into the net, I wrapped my fingers around the bird tightly enough to keep it from flying away but loosely enough to avoid injuring the delicate creature.  The terrified bird peeped weakly and tried to flutter its trapped wings.  Bringing the tiny bird out from the net, I held it up for the children to see.

“That’s so cool!” one child exclaimed.  Then they all began to clamor, “I want to hold it!  I want to hold it!”

“Go ahead, touch it,” I invited, instructing them how to carefully stroke the iridescent, green feathers and to touch the wiry, black feet.

We walked out of the garage into the Summer sun.  Each child placed their hands under mine, and on the count of three we released the little bird.  It hovered erratically for a moment, then, gathering its bearings and new strength, it flew off to the south.  The hummingbird stopped for a moment at the feeder hanging from the arbor, full of sweet liquid, then flew high into the sky until we could no longer see it.  The children (and I) were thrilled at having touched and seen up close such a tiny, wild, beautiful creature.  We felt happiness inside knowing that we had rescued it and set it free.

* * *

An injured Western Kingbird flopped wildly on the pavement of Church Road near the intersection of Rabbit Lane.  It must have been struck by a passing car.  As I bent to pick it up, it opened its black beak wide and squawked in terror in a desperate but feeble attempt to protect itself from what it could only perceive as the attack of a giant predator.  I carefully folded the injured wing and cradled the bird inside my jacket as I carried it home.

I awoke Laura (9) and invited her help to dress the bird’s injuries.  We swabbed the wounds with disinfecting peroxide.  The bird still pointed its open beak at our awkward fingers, but had stopped verbalizing its protests.  We then wrapped the bird so that both wings were gently pinned against its body.  When the bindings were removed, we reasoned, the strength in the mended wing would match the strength of the good wing.  The wings would gather new strength in concert.  Satisfied that this was the best chance the bird had to heal, we carried it outside to a small, protected pen and set it down upon its feet in the straw.  We hoped we would be able feed and water the bird long enough for it to recover.  We would have to catch bugs, since its diet did not include seeds.

Releasing the bound bird, it immediately fell over onto its face.  The bindings had rendered it completely helpless, like you or I would be if wrapped from head to toe with only our toes exposed for mobility.  It needed its wings for balance as well as for flight.  Discouraged, Laura and I removed all of our careful wrappings and did our best to splint the broken wing.  This less invasive treatment allowed the bird to stand and walk about, but the bandage wouldn’t stay on for the difficulty of attaching it to the wing feathers.

Despite our well-intentioned but fumbling efforts, the Kingbird died after three days.  Still, I was glad we had rescued the bird and attempted to nurse it back to health.  The thought of leaving the frightened bird in the roadway to be smashed by the next passing car saddened me.  Also, handling the small but proud creature, and working to heal it, had worked a change in us.  We felt a greater awe in nature’s wild things and a deeper grief at their loss.

* * *

An old Warbler nest hangs, swaying, from a low willow branch like a balled up, gray woolen sock.  It clings to the branch through the strongest of winds.  Gusts topping 80 miles per hour have neither torn it apart nor pulled it from its suspending branch.

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A lone Crow flies south behind a V-formation of Canada Geese.  It caws loudly despite a large parcel in its beak, defiant toward the fable of the fox and the crow.  This seems to be a smarter, more talented Crow.  Is this Crow lonely or content in its aloneness?  Do the geese communicate, or do they merely find comfort in their raucous propinquity?

A cock Ring-necked Pheasant croaks unseen in the tall grass, nervous at my approach.  When I stop to search with my eyes, he seems to suspect me of bad intentions, and flaps inelegantly into a tree, landing clumsily in its top branches, his feathers thrashing against leafy twigs.  On Rabbit Lane, feathers from a Pheasant hen lay scattered about, chestnut brown barred with beige.  Nearby sits a pile of spent red plastic shotgun shells with brass caps.

When the Robin appears, pulling at worms, I know that Spring is near.  Hummingbirds whir and zoom looking for early flowers.  They light in me a tiny spark of joy that has lain smoldering all Winter.

The Killdeer scream at me, draw me away from their spare nests that lie hidden in the rocks and gravel, flapping their striped wings as if injured.

In a chaotic, white cloud of winged, shrieking voices, whirling and churning around me, charging my senses, thousands of California Gulls descend upon a newly ploughed field next to Rabbit Lane.  I perceive no order in their loose, gregarious grouping, unlike flocks of geese following a leader in formation.  Milling around in search of upturned earthworms, the flock calls raucously, sounding like a thousand tuneless New Year’s Eve noisemakers.  Despite their awful sound, the birds are beautiful: sleek white feathers with gray tips, a red dot on each side of the creamy yellow beak.  In flight, their streamlined bodies and powerful wing beats propel them through the air, with their black webbed feet tucked into their downy white undersides.

At Boy Scout camp at Lake Seneca, New York, the older boys sent me to ask another troop for a left-handed smoke-shifter, then took me on a snipe hunt.  I found neither the device nor the creature.  Only after moving to Erda did I learn that the Snipe is a real creature, a water bird.  Smaller than an Avocet, the Snipe roams the ditches and wetlands, poking its beak into the mud for insects and small crayfish.  On many an evening I strained to discern the source of a soft, ghostly, reverberating sound moving over the farm fields.  But I never found it.  Explaining this mystery to Harvey one afternoon, he told me to look high into the sky whenever I heard the sound.  There, I would see a small dot, the ventriloquistic Snipe.  Flying high, the Snipe turns to dive and roll at breakneck speeds toward the ground.  Wind rushing through its slightly open wings creates the haunting sound.  The Snipe throws the sound somehow from those heights to hover foggily over the fields.  I hear it less and less as the years pass.

The water from Rabbit Lane’s ditch crosses Charley’s pasture diagonally, bogging at the northwest corner.  Twenty or more striped Wilson’s Phalaropes cackle harshly at me as I walk by, their long legs sunk in the bog and their long beaks searching for insects and invertebrates.

Birds twitter in the willow bushes by the irrigation ditch.  Birds sing from the Russian Olive trees.  Birds call and screech and chirp from bushes and branches, from the tops of cedar fence posts and in flight.  How does one describe the song of a bird?  My National Geographic field guide to North American birds assigns all manner of syllabic writing to bird songs and calls, none of which words approach a satisfactory description of the music.  In English, the Crow is synonymous with the “caw.”  These meager descriptions are like saying a note played on the piano sounds like plink, like a model-T horn shouts ba-OO-ga, like a baby’s cry is waaaa.  No euphemistic reduction does justice to the genuine song.  Thanks to Cornell University’s ornithology lab, new bird books allow the reader to push a button and hear each bird’s unique song, sometimes a humble peep, sometimes a glorious, frenetic melody.

The Western Kingbird’s song resembles chaotic, unpatterned electronica.  A Bullock’s Oriole splashes its ember-orange on a canvas of blue-green Russian Olive.

The Western Meadowlark sings frequently from the tops of cedar tree fence posts.  Even driving at 60 miles per hour with the window cracked, I can hear its piercing but beautifully melodious song.  Attempts to whistle the tune bog it terribly down and omit half the notes, each critical, resulting in a sometimes recognizable but always shabby imitation.

A Black-chinned Hummingbird perches on a strand of stiff barbed wire, surveying vast fields of grass.  Its black beak points as straight and as sharp as the silver barbs, yet the bird possesses a softness and a beauty incongruous with the hard wire stretched tight.

A Field Crescent flits from place to place on Rabbit Lane’s asphalt, flying a low dance around my walking feet, making momentary spots of brightness against the ubiquitous gray.

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