Cuckoo for Caterpillars

They look awful, and seem to threaten the forest with ultimate consumption–the fall web worms whose unsightly tents of silk tatter the margins of roadways and fields in autumn.

What many people don’t realize is that, in the end, the caterpillars generally don’t kill the trees they make their webs in; and second, that there are predators whose numbers rise in relationship to the numbers of caterpillars. And if you pay attention, you can hear them–the black-billed cuckoos who eat them by the thousands. They are related to the western roadrunner.

We are hearing both yellow and black-billed in abundance this summer.

Here’s an interesting fact I did not know, according the first link below, and not corroborated yet by other references:

“…cuckoos are true dietary specialists adapted to eating the hirsute larvae whose multitudes have overrun our parks and woodlands in many places. Over time, a cuckoo’s stomach becomes matted with caterpillar hairs that stick in the lining. Eventually this felt becomes so dense that it inhibits digestion, so the cuckoo sheds its whole stomach lining and grows it anew.

I suggest you click the audubon field guide links to listen to the songs of these two birds. And I’ll bet at least some of you (that is if there’s more than one person who reads this post) will say “Hey! I’ve heard that!”

The yellow-billed song sounds more like something that would come off a Tarzan movie. It is also referred in some parts of the south as the “rain crow.”

Black-billed Cuckoo | Audubon Field Guide
Yellow-billed Cuckoo | Audubon Field Guide
Black-billed Cuckoo | John James Audubon’s Birds of America
Yellow-billed Cuckoo | John James Audubon’s Birds of America

Seventeen Years Not Wanting to Know

I am reading the NYT special called “Losing Earth. The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change.” If you want a video summary, here is an interview with the author, Nathaniel Rich, on Democracy Now.

It portrays the choices we once almost made to act on the facts we agreed on  back then that humanity was fouling its own nest. We had the body of evidence; many had the will.

But the currents heading us towards a safer future were soon diverted during the time frame referenced in the essay–from 1979 to 1989. The Reagan administration was for me the most blatant and visible evidence that my generations’ hopes would not be realized–maybe in our lifetimes.

The flow shifted, pushing back on progress made since the first Earth day in 1970. Progress became regress as the Merchants of Doubt rebranded their successful campaign to obfuscate the dangers of cigarette smoking to include other possible assaults on our health: climate change; plastics; BPA and other hormone disruptors; threats to entire phyla of plants and animals. Doubt and denial became effective tools that easily confounded our increasingly science-illiterate public.

These environmental crises, according to some, were all questionable, deniable “hoaxes” if you listened to the industries that would have had to change if the truth were known. According to Big Ag, Big Pharma, and Big Oil, they were making America great.

Better living through chemistry. They were bringing good things to life. And they wielded their wealth to “prove” it through corrupt science and the power of mind-molding, behavior-shaping advertisements and campaigns of intentional deceit.


I think about this history as an overlay to my own, as I consider a chapter in a possible book I’m half-heartedly working on. In that chapter, I think out loud about all the factors that brought me to Goose Creek in 1999, with my peculiar set of passions, skills, fears and hopes.

The period addressed in the NYT article reminds me of many of those motivators to leave where we once were happy in our small universe, but heart sick about the larger world–a complex, ordered and resilient living planet, once almost redeemed from our poisons, then sold in pieces as fodder, the carnage to feed the stockholders.

I remember the pain in 1980 of having seen the pieces of a global reversal to climate change within grasp, only to be nibbled to death by people (almost all men, almost all white) who to me seemed willfully evil. Anyone who sells the future health of the planet out from under their own children–can they be anything else?

I left teaching biology in 1987 for a lot of reasons, but this corporate-political assault on nature was high on the list of the main reasons we packed up and moved from the mountains back to the city–from a daily immersion in the state of the planet as a teacher into 17 years of willful blindness towards a dismemberment I could not bear to watch.


That willful ignorance ended when I agreed to return to the classroom, teaching Environmental Biology at Radford University in 2004 and 2005. That blindness and deafness to the plight of the world ended when I discovered that, with the new weapon of the written word discovered only in 2002, I was not powerless to face the debacle of the out-of-control Growth Economy.

But then a new and even more sinister chapter began in November 2016. Its force and focus and intent has been a kind of Kryptonite to those of us who come from where I come from, given the history recounted here. It is almost lethally discouraging and depressing–the turning of the prior “lost decade” of NYT focus paling in comparison to the callous hopes of this administration.

But maybe at the end of the book, even this blatant attack on all that is holy to biology watchers like me will be shown to have feet of clay. Things really are going the way the inconvenient facts have suggested they probably would if we did nothing.

Cities are consumed in flames, entire regions use the last of their groundwater; glaciers melt and babies in India die from the heat; and entire populations of once-familiar and essential plants and animals disappear. Millions are displaced by eco-crisis, hunger, and lifeboat desperation of their local despots who feel the boat rocking more each day.

Even deniers share a common biology. It’s a shame it has taken another three decades to begin just slightly to get their attention. As we rush to the edge, I hope we act as if we remember that putting on the brakes needs to happen before becoming airborne–not pushing even harder on the gas.

Plant Ballistics: Mountain Laurel’s Explosive Pollen Bullets

Mountain Laurel, Terrys Fork, Virginia

The intricate design of the Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia) was a marvel for me in 1970 when I was a student on a field trip to the Smokies from Auburn University. Systematic Botany was a wake-up call to a budding zoologist who should not think there was little to learn from fixed, do-nothing greenery. I declared a botany minor after that field trip.

Laurel’s ten spring-tethered anthers (the pollen package) are arranged radially around the receptive stigma–the female part–in the very center of the flower.

A visiting insect would typically land on the disk and walk around the center in search of high-calorie nectar. And zap! the tension in the tethering “filaments” would shoot pollen onto the bee who would fly off with pollen from Plant A to deposit it on the female parts of flowers on Plant B.

But wait. Is this REALLY the strategy and method Kalmia uses to maintain genetic vigor? High-speed filming has revealed some answers.

Another similar method is used by a dogwood called Bunchberry–but the anthers additionally are able to swivel at the end of the filaments–creating more of a trebuchet force than a simple catapult like Kalmia.

Watch this short video of explosive Bunchberry pollen at 10k frames per second.

Abbott’s Sphinx Moth Caterpillar

The caterpillar is heading stage left, eyespot on the other end, an intended distraction.

As if I knew this beauty–or even did the work to key it out for myself. I’d never seen it, and failing in a five-minute scroll of Google and Bing images of North American caterpillars, I resorted to a kind of benign cheating.

I posted the image to the Caterpillar Identification group on FB at 4:20 this morning and less than an hour later, had a correct ID. Many thanks!

So I’ve gathered a few resources to store away with this new fact (yes, they DO still exist on Goose Creek, if not in our nation’s capital.)

Both the caterpillar and the adult moth are quite variable. I HAVE seen the moth but did not know what it was. I will next time–my world richer for knowing one more living thing and fellow creature, by name.

The Trickster Among Moths: Abbott’s Sphinx | Featured Creature 

Abbott’s Sphinx Caterpillar – What’s That Bug?

Sphecodina abbottii 

Abbott Sphinx – Google Search




Audubon’s Crow

American Crow–from the Audubon Collectio

If you have an interest in birds and art and writing and natural history in general, bookmark John J. Audubon’s Birds of America.

He did not only seek out (and shoot) and paint a vast number of American birds. He also paid careful detail to their habits and habitats.

The site makes for an interesting hour if you are hole-up in a dentist waiting room–like I expect to be next week.

I notice he observes that when you see crows, you won’t see ravens. We have both species co-existing here on Goose Creek, year ’round, and it is helpful to see the two in the air at the same time–the raven much the more heavy-bodied of the two, and more given to soaring than to flapping; their hoarse ROOK! so different from the nasal CAW! of the smaller bird.